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La Pura Vida in Costa Rica 0

Posted on August 04, 2015 by Sahar

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Just like Jamaica last year, Steve & I this year traveled to a place we never thought we’d go: Costa Rica. We honestly never had a desire to visit Central America;  it simply had no appeal for either of us. However, when Dad proposed this trip as a way for the whole family (Mom, Dad, three daughters, three sons-in-law, two grandsons) together to go someplace new and celebrate Older Nephew‘s graduation, what were we to say?

Sure, Dad. We’re in.

So, tickets were bought last September, a house was rented for a week, and activities studied and contemplated by one and all. And, since Dad and my younger sister, Danyah (mother of the nephews/grandsons) had already visited Costa Rica, the rest of us relied on them for advice and travel tips. They also unsuccessfully tried convince everyone to go zip lining.

 

For those of you who don’t know too much about Costa Rica, I’m going to attempt to give you a quick primer:  Costa Rica is in the southern part of Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. Because it’s less than 700 miles due north from the Equator, the climate is tropical year-round (basically, it has two seasons – wet and dry). It’s  sandwiched between the Caribbean on the eastern shore, the Pacific on the western shore, and a whole lot of tropical rain and humid forests with a few arid areas in between. The daylight and nighttime hours are split almost evenly (the sun would rise at about 6am and set about 5:30-6pm).  More than one-third of the country has been placed under some sort of environmental protection, making it one of the most bio-diverse nations on Earth. In fact, in 2012, it had the highest environmental ranking of all the Americas.

The economy of Costa Rica has hit a rough patch over the last 3 – 4 years, but it is still one of the strongest in the Central American region. Its main economic sources are tourism (especially eco-tourism), electronics (mostly cash registers and calculators), and agriculture (bananas, coffee, sugar, rice, ornamental plants, potatoes, etc.).

Costa Rica was believed to be first inhabited about 10,000 years BCE by peoples from the Mesoamerican and Andean regions, and was still sparsely populated by its indigenous people (namely the Bribri and Maleku) before coming under Spanish rule in the 1560’s. It remained an outer colony of the Spanish Empire until independence as part of the First Mexican Empire (1821-23), followed by membership in the United Provinces of Central America (1823-1840; several more attempts were made to continue the union until 1885), from which it formally declared sovereignty in 1847. Following a brief but bloody civil war in 1948, it permanently abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of the few world nations with no standing army.

Even after Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain and declared full sovereignty in 1847, years of invasion, American colonialism – both political and economic, yellow fever, dictatorship, and civil wars, it finally becomes a democratic nation in 1949 when then-president Josè Figueres Ferrer (father of Costa Rica’s “unarmed” democracy) declared a new constitution that granted full citizenship and voting rights to women and minorities.  He also created the foundation for the country’s modern welfare state. Indigenous peoples were finally granted rights of ownership in 1977, and the right to vote in 1994. However, the indigenous populations, like many in all of the Americas, still have their issues with the federal government taking over historically treatied lands and ignoring articles of protection.

In 1986, president Óscar Arias Sánchez, fully asserted Costa Rican independence by forcing out the Nicaraguan Contras the United States basically foisted upon his predecessor, Luís Alberto Monge, by again raising the banner of sovereignty and neutrality, and essentially drove them out of Costa Rica. Sánchez won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for uniting Central America and helping end the Nicaraguan War.

As it stands now, Costa Rica (literal translation: “Rich Coast”) is a green peaceful paradise with amazing wildlife, delicious food, wonderful people, and, as the Ticos like to say, “la pura vida”.

 

Day 1 – Monday, July 6

Travel Day.

Steve & I drove to my parents on Sunday to be in full readiness for our 6am Monday flight. We had to leave the house by 4am so we could be at DFW Airport and at check-in by 4:30. As part of my over-anxiousness with anything having to do with air travel, I went ahead and checked Steve & I in online the day before. Dad parked in remote parking and so we hiked to the shuttle station for a ride to the terminal. We met up there with Sister Danyah’s crew. I couldn’t even see the airport from the parking lot. That’s when I decided I really do prefer smaller airports. That’s when I also realized I’d overpacked. Again.

After Steve & I checked our bags – and paying the additional $25 per – we headed to security leaving Mom & Dad with Danyah’s (Husband Heath, Older Son/Grandson/Nephew, and Younger Son/Grandson/Nephew) family to do their check-in. (Sister Haneen and Husband Mark were flying from Newark to meet up with us in Miami.)

We all kind of gathered again near the gate and then spread out to forage for caffeine and a breakfast-type snack. One of the few caffeine sellers open was Starbucks (ugh), so Steve got us each a beverage. Coffee for him, hot chocolate for me.

Finally, we all boarded. I distinctly felt like I was being herded onto a cattle truck. Only with a little extra leg room that I paid for and a cubby for my camera equipment. Not long after we had settled in, I heard from Danyah a couple of rows up that Haneen & Mark were delayed out of Newark at least 2 hours due to mechanical issues with their plane. Dad tried to contact them, but, no answer. Family theories started to make their way around. Dad basically said there was nothing anyone could do about it and he’d try to get in touch with them when we arrived in Miami.

After getting a lecture from the flight attendant about sitting in the exit row (Yes. I can open the exit door. Trust me, I’ll be the first one out.), I, for grins, took a look at the in-flight menu.

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?

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Ditto. Ugh.

 

After this, the Dramamine took over and I essentially fell asleep until we landed in Miami.

Mom & Dad rushed off the plane to try to contact Haneen & Mark to check on their progress. The rest of us finally made our way off and headed to the next terminal and gate. (I have to say, Miami Airport is one of the most disorganized and confusing I’ve ever been through, and I’ve been through a lot of airports.)

When Mom & Dad finally caught up with us, they said they hadn’t been able to reach Haneen & Mark. Dad theorized that they likely caught a flight from Newark to Charlotte and then were going to meet us in San José.  We all went with that; it sounded plausible.

After everyone had boarded, it was plain to see that it wasn’t a full flight. Once we were at cruising altitude, I moved over across to the aisle seat so I would feel like I had some breathing and spreading room (I was assigned the middle seat both flights). Bliss. Between dozing, reading, and talking to my sister, the flight was tolerable.

Finally, we landed in San José. Because our flight was early, we had to wait on the tarmac for 20 minutes before the plane was assigned a gate; I always figured this was planned somewhat in advance.

While we were waiting, the family grapevine passed the message that Haneen & Mark were only about 30 minutes behind us. They’d managed to re-book and be on their way sooner than we thought. Whew.

Then, there was passport control.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

Passport Control. Always fun.

Passport Control. Always fun.

After queueing for 30 minutes, we discover that the flight attendant had given us the wrong forms to fill out. Or, rather, she had switched them – the family form and the immigration form. Hooray.

After the re-filling of the forms in the correct way and number and getting the passports stamped, we all met up at baggage claim where the bags were all neatly arranged and waiting for us. But, before we could leave the baggage area, one more security check. Just our luck, we were stuck behind a family who didn’t seem to know what they were doing; it was like they couldn’t figure out how to put their bags on the conveyor belt. Even Dad, the family model of patience, was about to lose it. Then, the other line cleared out and we took our opportunity. The entire Arafat clan got through while the other family was still plodding along.

Mom volunteered to wait in the security area for Haneen & Mark, but we persuaded her to go out with us; there was only one way out, so we decided they would figure out where to go.

Dad found our driver, Estilio, and enlisted him and everyone except he & Mom to take the luggage to the van that was going to take us on the 3-hour drive to Quepos.

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My second glimpse of Costa Rica from the top of the parking garage.

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Our transportation for the day. The best part – it was air conditioned.

My first impression of Costa Rica was green. So very green. The humidity hit me next. Then, the rain (we were there during the rainy season). However, despite being at the airport, the air still felt fresh and clean. Perhaps that was simply my brain fooling itself after being in airports and planes for the past 12 hours.

While we waited for the other two (Dad received continual updates on their progress), Danyah & I wandered a little.

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Pay phones!

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There were warnings everywhere to only use the red airport cabs. I guess there’ve been issues.

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Our first food in Costa Rica. These were damn good. Danyah bought another bag.

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Waiting. The photo is dark, but that’s from (2nd from l-r): Steve, Heath, Dad, Danyah

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Juan Santamaría International Airport, San José, Costa Rica

Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, Haneen & Mark walk through the doors. And the rejoicing begins. However, Mark’s luggage had gone missing and he arrived with only his guitar in hand. The airline assured them that his bags would be delivered via courier the next day at the house in Quepos.

Ah… The joys of travel.

Mom & Dad finally rounded up the crew and we headed up to the van and Estilio. Dad asked him to stop somewhere for all of us to get something to eat since none of us had really eaten anything substantial since… a while ago.  When Estilio asked him what we’d like, Dad said Costa Rican. Hell, we may as well plunge in.

Estilio took us to a restaurant in San José that was probably the best meal we had the entire trip – La Casona del Maíz (The House of Corn).

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our view from the table.

Our view from the table.

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Another view from our table.

La Casona was a large, open-air restaurant with plenty of room to spread out. It seemed like it was built to blend into the landscape it adjoined. The rain had cooled the air, and while it was humid, the cooler temperature made it tolerable. The air circulation was certainly welcome.

I noticed this beaur=tifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

I noticed this beautifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

Not long after we sat down, our server took our drink order (her in broken English, most of us in broken Spanish) and then she brought a couple of jars of some of the best pickled vegetables I’ve ever eaten. I ate a lot of the cauliflower out of the jar at my end of the table. It was just the right balance of tart and spicy. I’d like to think that they make these in-house.

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Yum.

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Birra Imperial. The National Beer of Costa Rica. Not a bad lager.

Not long after we ordered our food, it started coming to the table.

Wow. Was it good. Better than good – amazing.

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Guacamole with in-house made tostadas. Simple and delicious.

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Fried plantains with Montenegro Cheese. The sauce was a kind of mayonnaise. Honestly, I could’ve eaten a plate of these for dinner and been happy.

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My meal: Tablita de Chicharron. Essentially translates to Small Board of Pork. It was honestly some of the best pork I’ve ever had – seasoned well and fried with a great balance of chewy and tender. I only wish there were more tortillas. The salsa was fresh and the black beans had a wonderful sweet-smoky flavor. Bonus: more plantains.

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Steve’s meal: I thought I wrote it down, but, I didn’t. If I remember correctly, he had something similar to mine except his was chicken (pollo) instead of pork and it included a cheese quesadilla.

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Danyah’s meal: Arroz con Pollo. A dish you will find everywhere in Latin America from Mexico down to the tip of Chile.

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Haneen’s meal: Essentially the vegetarian plate. Her plate included fried egg, a soup of yucca & corn, avocado, cheese, plantains, salsa, black beans, rice, and tortillas. It’s a beautiful plate.

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The family enjoying our first Costa Rican meal. Clockwise: my plate, Younger Nephew, Dad, Mark, Haneen, Danyah, Mom, Older Nephew, Steve, Heath

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Complimentary rice pudding. Oh. My. God. Wow.

We came to the collective decision that if all the food in Costa Rica was as good as this, we were in for a great time.

While everyone was taking turns using the restroom, the rest of us stretched and wandered around the restaurant and simply took in the scenery.

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A coconut palm.

Soon, we were all back in the van to Quepos.  It’s only about 60km (about 38 miles) from San José if you go as the crow flies; but, because the only straight road is the Pan-American Highway, it’s really about 160km (about 100 miles) and takes about 2 – 3 hours to drive to Quepos. Most of the roads in Costa Rica, despite its excellent infrastructure, are small, winding, 2-lane affairs where you’re at the mercy of whatever is in the road and whomever is in front of you. I do have to give credit to the scooter and motorcycle drivers – they were a daring bunch of souls.

As everyone was conversing, dozing, or looking out the windows, we all began to notice that it was already getting dark, despite the fact it was only about 5pm. Certainly not something any of us expected. I can only speak for myself, but I suddenly felt very tired.

A view from the van.

A view from the van.

As we passed over a bridge, we noticed a large number of people looking over into the water.  Estilio pulled over and told us that it was the Río Tarcoles and there were about 30 American Crocodiles living under the bridge. Who were we to say no to this.

After carefully walking either on the edge of the road or on the bridge walkway, there they were. In all their glory. And, because the weather was beginning to cool a little and it was getting dark, they were becoming more active.

We all noticed this big guy.  At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed up.

We all noticed this big guy. At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed.

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Río Tarcoles

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Some of these are tree branches, other, crocodiles. You decide which is which.

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Mom, Haneen, and I crossed the road and noticed this one. It wasn’t moving at all. We just assumed it was dead. Then, it moved. I think it found some prey. Not sure if it caught anything or not.

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Río Tarcoles. I tried to catch a picture of some Scarlet Macaws flying overhead. I, sadly, wasn’t successful.

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Misty Mountain Hop

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Brahmas seem to the be the cattle of choice in Costa Rica. I admired the rancher who set up shop next to a river full of crocodiles.

After this little stop, we climbed back into the van and finished our journey to Quepos. It was fairly uneventful but it felt very long. I think everyone wanted just to get to the house.  However, before we made it to the house, we had one more stop to make. We were meeting our property manager and local contact, Ana.  Dad paid her for the week of our stay, got some paperwork, and we asked her a few basic questions about what we were to expect.

There was a full stocked kitchen equipment-wise, but we had to buy food. There was a laundry room and we could use their detergent. The maids come every day. There was air conditioning in the bedrooms. She and Estilio suggested that we go to the supermercado Maxi Palí to stock up on what we needed.

A very nice produce stand

A very nice produce stand

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Fruit, Vegetables, Monkeys

We didn’t see Ana again after that stop, but we talked to her quite frequently on the phone for the rest of the trip.

When we finally made it into Quepos, it was completely dark and only about 6:30. It felt so much later. Estilio pulled into the Maxi Palí parking lot and we all piled out. I have to say, trying to keep up with 10 people in a grocery store is like herding cats.

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We were frequent customers of various Maxi Palís and the regular Palís during our visit.

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Sugary drinks seem to be popular. Thanks, America.

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Mark is in there somewhere looking for some sweet duds to wear until his luggage arrives.

We stocked up on vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread, peanut butter, Nutella, Fresca, water, coffee, tea, sugar, lentils, eggs, tortillas, butter, juice, milk, the Costa Rican equivalent of Cheetos Puffs, a couple of shirts for Mark, and various OTC drugs.  The guys also grabbed what they thought was a pound of bacon. (When I went to cook it a few days later, I noticed it was a kilo [2.2 lbs.].)

Finally, we made it to the house. Estilio had a little trouble finding it in the dark. The place we stayed was a gated community with no outside lighting. So, if one was unfamiliar with the roads, it was easy to get lost. Plus, to compound things, the hills felt like they were at a 45-degree angle. After a couple of aborted attempts, Estilio finally found the house – Happy Jacana.

I can’t remember who got the door unlocked, but I know I was one of the first in and managed to find the light switch in the pitch dark. Upon first glance, the house looked lovely, if a little stuffy, climate-wise. But, whatever; we just wanted to get the van unloaded, stake out our rooms, get the groceries put away, and go to bed.

There were two bedrooms in the main house while the rest of them were either separate or on a different level.  Mom & Dad and Steve & I took the bedrooms in the main house; because, you know, we could. So, while Steve took our bags upstairs, Mom tasked me with putting away the groceries. Then, she took her & Dad’s bags up to their room while Dad helped everyone else find their rooms. It wasn’t easy in an unfamiliar house in the dark. I think it took close to an hour for everyone to find and pick their rooms and get settled in.

As for putting away the groceries, I put everything I could in the refrigerator when I noticed the various ant trails in the house.

Well, I figured, we’re in the tropics; not much we can do about the ants. Besides, the house geckos seemed to be enjoying their feast.

I think we were all in bed by 8:30-ish. Collective exhaustion had taken over.

But, just when we thought the fun was over, a transformer blew somewhere nearby and the electricity went out in the neighborhood about 9pm. I could hear Dad stumbling downstairs to call Ana. Whatever she managed to do, it worked. The electricity was back on by 11pm. Thank goodness. I was about to give up and go sleep by the pool. To hell with the bugs and whatever animals might wander by.

 

(A couple of notes here: a) We decided early on in the planning of this trip that everyone would do their own thing; we couldn’t and/or wouldn’t all be joined at the collective hip. I’m basically writing about what I, and those who were with me for various excursions, did during the trip; b) Also, because I can’t possibly write about what everyone ate every time we were together, I’m writing about my meals and, again, those who were with me or sitting near me in the restaurants or at the house.)

 

Day 2 – Tuesday, July 7

A little about Quepos: It is basically considered the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park (7km – about 4-1/2 mi.) and is known for the abundance of sport fishing in the area.  The town itself has a population of less than 30,000.  The town is in the Central Pacific Region on the Pacific Coast and is the administrative center of the Puntarenas Province.

Quepos is a fairly small town that has managed, for the most part, to keep a decent balance between the needs of the local citizens and tourists.  The town is laid out, grid-like, and, while there are no street signs, is still easy to get around if you simply pay attention to the landmarks.  It’s not the most picturesque place, but, the locals are friendly, the food and nightlife are great, and it was within walking distance from our house.

Quepos

Quepos

There was one main road that ran in front of the gates of our enclave – go right, Quepos; left, the road to Manuel Antonio. Most of the higher-priced restaurants, hotels, and general tourist stuff was on this road. For the most part, we opted to stay and do business in Quepos.

 

I was fully awake by 5:30am. I went downstairs figuring that I might be the first one or just my mom. Nope. Mom, Danyah, and Haneen were all downstairs already. I think we all silently decided to enjoy quiet conversation for as long as we could because, when the menfolk decided to stir, quiet would be over for the day.

After my breakfast of green tea and peanut butter on toast, I went back upstairs to grab my camera and get my first real photos of the landscape around our rented house.

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First photo from the balcony. The tree in the foreground with the red flowers is called the African Tulip Tree.

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I don’t know what the names of these trees and bushes are, but later in the day, the monkeys sure had fun in them.

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Ditto.

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Looking through the canopy at Quepos.

At this point, it was about 7:30 – 8am and just about everyone else was up and moving. Breakfast was (as it was most days) a fend-for-yourself affair. I was pretty obsessive about making sure the kitchen stayed as clean as possible because of the ants. Once everyone started throwing out their trash, the ants tended to congregate around the trash can. I was content to let them have at it if it kept them out of the rest of the kitchen.

After breakfast, Younger Nephew and I decided to have a look around in front.

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The front of the house we rented – Happy Jacana. Jacanas are water birds that has a widespread population throughout Costa Rica’s wet regions.

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Around the side of the house at street level. That’s Quepos through the trees.

I’m no botanist, but I know what I like, plant-wise. And just like in Jamaica, I remembered my love and enjoyment of tropical plants in Costa Rica.

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A type of Croton. It is a bushy shrub that can grow up to 3 meters (about 9 ft.) tall.

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Ixora. We saw these in Jamaica as well. They grow throughout tropical regions.

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Another type of Croton. This one is a narrow-leafed variety.

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This is the “fruit” from the Monkey Comb tree.

After I took the picture of the Monkey Comb fruit, I saw my first Iguana in the wild. I was so excited, I wanted to get my wide angle lens. I wasn’t paying attention and walked right on into the wrong house. Luckily, they were nice about it after I apologized profusely. I told them there was an Iguana on their roof and I was just going to grab a piece of camera equipment so I could get a better shot. They came out with one of their children and had a look. It was then that I took my opportunity to get the shot and sneak off.

Younger Nephew was just standing there. Smiling. Punk.

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Said Iguana that caused me to walk into the wrong house. It looks like the Spiny-Tailed variety.

When I went back to the correct house, I went to the back balcony again and chatted some more with Mom and whoever else was out there. Then, Mom saw it. A huge Iguana in the trees perfectly in our line of sight. She went to get her binoculars so we could all get a better look.

It was a large male Green Iguana out for a little morning sun and to, I presume, survey his kingdom.

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There he is in a Yellow Elder tree.

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The orange coloring on his face and body indicated that he was a breeding male.

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He was fascinating to watch. I’m not sure how long he was in the tree, but it was easily hours. Older Green Iguanas tend to be arboreal; the younger are terrestrial.

 

It was time to get ready. Danyah, Dad, Heath, Older Nephew, Younger Nephew, and I were all heading to the beach at Manuel Antonio. Our original plan was to go to the beach in the park; however, when we arrived, the line for tickets was crazy long. Plus, we had no idea that we would have to pay $15 a head to get in just to go the beach. So, we asked our driver to turn around and take us back the public beach next door. It was lovely and free.

So, with a promise to pick us up at 11:30, the driver dropped us off.

Playa Espadilla (also known as Manuel Antonio Beach #2) is a large beach with a mix of dark gray and yellow sand. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike. There were vendors walking around hocking everything from pottery to coconut water still in the nut. The beach wasn’t too crowded and the rain held off, so it made for a pleasant morning.

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First real glimpse of the Pacific.

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The other side of the rocks is the beach in Manuel Antonio park.

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When we arrived, the tide was going out. The beach seemed to get wider as the morning drew on.

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You could rent a couple of chairs and an umbrella for $10 for as long as you needed them. We did just that. Everyone, except the boys, took turns watching our stuff.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t something I do often. I had to remember to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t swallow a bunch of salt water every time a wave hit.

Also, my attempts at body surfing were unsuccessful.

The boys

The menfolk in the Pacific: Younger Nephew, Heath, Older Nephew, Dad

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

As always, I wandered a bit. I was done swimming for the time being. Plus, I was starting to feel a little sick from the sea water I swallowed.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio and part of the humid forest that makes up this region of the country.

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I believe most of the rocks and rock formations around the beaches are volcanic.

Not long after this, Heath came out of the water to rest – the boys refused to came out of the water until we basically forced them to right before the taxi arrived. Dad, Danyah, and I took a walk around the beach.

So there was this happy warning.

So there was this happy warning. Basically, it said that area was a crocodile habitat and the water had fecal contamination. FYI – this was at the back edge of Manuel Antonio Park and across an inlet.

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Some of the large volcanic rock formations on the beach.

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The inlet stream flowing into the ocean.

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Looking out onto the Pacific

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Looking towards Playa Espadilla

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One of the inlet streams coming out of the park. I had no idea whether or not I was standing in contaminated water. Nothing happened, so I guess not.

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Dad and Danyah

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Teeny tiny Hermit Crabs were everywhere.

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Looking down the beach towards the park

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Another little Hermit Crab. It’s in the center of the photo.

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Dad said this was a Sea Urchin. I wasn’t so sure. As a precaution, I didn’t pick it up.

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One final beach photo at the rocks.

While the others were packing up our belongings, I ventured back into the ocean to get the Nephews. They weren’t too thrilled about having to actually get back on dry land. We probably could’ve left them there and it would’ve taken them hours to notice.

So, back to the house to clean the beach sand off of weird places on one’s body and rinse out the swimsuits.

For our first full day in Costa Rica, it was decided that we’d go into Quepos for lunch. I don’t think we really had a plan; just find a place that looked good. We came upon a restaurant called Restaurante el Jardin del Mar (essentially “Restaurant Garden of the Sea). The food there was good and there was a lot of it. The restaurant wasn’t large, but it was open-air, and great for people-watching.

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Day 2 restaurant of choice. Like a lot of restaurants in Quepos (and, I suspect, in most cities), it was open for breakfast (desayunos), lunch (almuerzo), and dinner (cena)

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I hadn’t had one of these in years.

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Jugo de mango. Mango juice. More of a smoothie, really. It was really good.

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My lunch. Mariscada de la Casa. Basically, “Seafood Plate of the House”. It was huge. Steve ordered the same thing. We easily could’ve split one plate. There was snapper, squid, crab, shrimp, mussels, and one other fish I couldn’t identify. Other than the squid being a little overcooked, it was really delicious. The nephews had to help me finish it, though.

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Danyah’s lunch: Pescado en Salsa Limón (Fish with Lemon Sauce). By the way, French Fries are very popular.

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Younger Nephew’s lunch: Seafood Paella. I tried some of the rice; it was really  good.

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The family: clockwise from my plate: Steve’s hand, Younger Nephew, Heath, Mark, Haneen, Dad, Mom (hidden), Older Nephew, Danyah

After lunch, there was the usual debate when you’re with a large group as to what everyone was going to do next. While this was happening, Steve and Haneen went onto a nearby book and record store. About 10 minutes later, they came back and told Mom and I about a tour at a spice plantation on Wednesday. I must have given Steve a look of pure joy, because he said “I can tell by the look on your face, you’re in”. Haneen went back to the store and booked Mom, Dad, Steve, herself, and me on the tour.

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Quepos

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Quepos. Not the most picturesque or touristy town, but it’s what we wanted.

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Fruit on display in a carneceria.

After this, I, Mom, Heath, and I can’t remember who else, decided to take the taxi back to the house while everyone else stayed in town for a little longer.

Later in the afternoon, this happened. A small show was put on for us by the local family of Red Back Squirrel Monkeys. We were told that there was a good chance we would see some monkeys during our stay. The best thing to do was just watch them and stay out of their way. Don’t engage or feed them. They bite.

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It’s not the best photo, but here’s one on the roof.

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In the palm leaves.

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Mom & baby hanging out.

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The monkeys scattered after this bird started flying overhead. So, my best guess is it was a Double-toothed Kite because they tend to stalk monkey groups.

I didn’t do much the rest of the day. I swam a little in the pool, read, rested, and was generally quiet. Dinner was a fend-for-yourself event. In fact, I’m not even sure I ate dinner.

 

Day 3 – Wednesday, 7/8

Mom, Dad, Haneen, Steve, and I were outside waiting before 9am for the bus to take us to our tour to Villa Vanilla. And, we waited. at about 9:15-ish, Haneen went back inside to call the tour operator to see what was up. Turned out there was a small strike among taxi drivers that day because the government reneged on a promised salary hike. But, once our bus picked up some of the other tour attendees and made it through the traffic, they’d be by to pick us up.

Well, fine.

So, in the meantime, we entertained ourselves.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

Bird of Paradise

Parrot’s Flower

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn't phase them at all.

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn’t phase them at all.

Amarillo Peanut. I didn't pull it up, but there was very likely a legume in the ground. The plant has become more popular as a ground cover because of the flowers.

Amarillo Peanut. It’s become popular as a ground cover because of the flowers and the way the plant spreads.

Lobster Claw

Lobster Claw

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I came across these, but I couldn’t find the name of the flower. They are lovely, though.

The parents. Aren't they cute?

The parents. Aren’t they cute?

Finally, the bus arrived and we were on our way. There were about a dozen more people joining us on the tour.

The trip to Villa Vanilla took about 45 minutes.  It’s only about 16km/10 miles way from Quepos, but once you’re outside of the main town and on the way to Naranjito, the roads become a little less vehicle-friendly.

My first glimpse of Vailla Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

My first glimpse of Villa Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

We arrived at the plantation and were greeted by our guide for the day, Giselle. She was wonderful. The first thing she did was take us to a small building on the property to show us how the process the cinnamon, vanilla beans, and, unexpectedly, cocoa beans and turmeric.

The cinnamon trees they grow are ones that produce Ceylon cinnamon (the kind we know more here in the US is Cassia). Ceylon cinnamon is finer in texture and sweeter than cassia cinnamon. (Giselle kept calling it “true cinnamon”.) Both are from the second layer of tree bark, but the cassia is much more dense and hard. (Here in the US, you can find Ceylon cinnamon at Mexican/Latin markets. It’s labeled “canela”.)

Cinnamon trees grow in the tropics and it takes 8 years before a tree is ready to be harvested. The outer bark is scraped off and the inner (second) layer of bark (the cinnamon) is then carefully shaved off, dried, and stored.  The remaining wood is used for firewood and/or made into charcoal that they use at the plantation.

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The gentleman (I forgot to write down his name) scraping off the outer bark of the tree. The branches underneath are white as he scrapes off the bark. However, they quickly oxidize to the gold color you see. The outer bark is composted.

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Our wonderful guide, Giselle. Her son, Roy, joined us later as we began trekking the plantation.

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Shaving off the second layer of bark – the cinnamon.

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The box of shaved cinnamon just before it’s spread out for drying.

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Mom with her piece of cinnamon. Everyone got a small piece  to eat. It was amazing to try cinnamon fresh off the tree.

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The wood ready for the fire. Everything on the farm is re-used or recycled in some manner.

After the cinnamon lecture was over, Giselle opened up the ovens for us so we could see what they were currently drying: cinnamon, cayenne peppers, and turmeric.

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The drying ovens.

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Turmeric.

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Cayenne peppers.

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The back tray is cinnamon.

The next thing she talked about was cacao. They don’t grow enough on the farm for it to be commercially viable for them except as ground cocoa. Which is too bad, because we each got a small sample of how good their chocolate can be.

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Some candies made in-house. The ingredients were cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. The texture was slightly grainy but that didn’t take away from the flavor. It’s really too bad they don’t grow enough to sell these commercially.

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Giselle showing us what the raw beans look like. We had a chance to try raw beans later in the tour.

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The dried beans. When they are crushed, they become nibs.

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The old way of crushing cocoa beans.

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Dried beans on display.

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These beans were in the middle of the 2-week drying cycle.

After the cocoa, Giselle started talking to us about vanilla beans. We quickly learned why they are so expensive.

The vanilla vine takes 2 years to become mature enough to grow the flowers needed for pollination. Because the flowers are only open for a few hours (3-4) one time, hand-pollinating is necessary to make sure that there will be a crop. This is done by running a small, thin stick through the pollen and then fertilizing another flower. Once the fruit begins to grow, it takes 6 months for it to come to full maturity.  The immature pods are dark green; the pods are picked when there is dark yellow coloration at the tip of the pod and it begins to split slightly. At this point, the harvest is continual to be sure that the pods are picked before they over-ripen.

Once the pods are picked, the drying process takes 2 months and then the pods are aged for 1 year before they are packaged and sold.

Giselle said that the pods will last for 60 (yes – 6.0.) years if they are kept in a sealed glass jar in a dark, cook place.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

When we were done with the ripe beans, Giselle, now joined by her son, Roy, began the tour of the grounds.

Another variety of Croton

Another variety of Croton

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A little diety surrounded by flora.

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More flora: red ginger, croton, palm, ficus

Giselle showed us a cocao tree growing in the front of the property. She explained that the pods aren’t ripe until they have turned yellow.

A very tiny cocao pod.

A very tiny cocao pod.

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Some of the larger pods. These were still months away from being ripe enough to harvest.

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Bougainvillea

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Looking through the canopy

Thsi may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

This may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

We began our journey through the rest of the plantation. It was dense with vegetation and wildlife. And, it was absolutely fascinating and beautiful.

Butterfly's Nest

Butterfly Weed

Banana

Banana

A type of Heliconia

A type of Heliconia

Giselle stopped at the composting shed to show us what they use around the plantation. It is the usual mix of dead vegetation, some shredded wood, and sheep manure.

Giselle in the composting shed

Giselle in the composting shed

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines.

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines with a few palm trees in for good measure.

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Torch Ginger

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Rattle Ginger. Roy told us that the hummingbirds like it because of the water that gathers in the folds. He also told us that in India the water is harvested to make perfume. We used it to wash our hands and faces. The water smelled great.

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Red Dracaena

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Vanilla vines with the immature pods.

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More vanilla pods.

I did wonder what an immature one would be like. The thought did briefly cross my mind to pick and pocket one. Then, I thought the better of it.

Fairy Queen

Fairy Queen

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Red Dracaena, Palms, Croton

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Rattle Ginger

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

It was at this point that I realized I had stopped listening to Giselle and became absorbed in taking photos. I honestly felt a little guilty.

But, Roy was there to help.  Plus, I think he had a little crush on my sister.

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Roy with a ripe cocoa pod. He was very sweet.

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Coconut palm

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Yes.

Here was a surprise. Allspice (Pimento) trees. Allspice is grown all over the Caribbean. We didn’t see any berries on the trees, but Giselle pulled a couple of leaves off the tree. They smelled like allspice, too. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

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Allspice (Pimento) tree.

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The leaf that smells like the spice.

Next, we stopped by a pepper vine. I always thought peppercorns grew on bushes. She pulled off a bunch so each person could try a peppercorn.

I find them to be far more spicy fresh than they are dried. I couldn’t finish mine.

Peppercorns are green when they are harvested. After harvesting, the peppercorns are boiled briefly to clean them. The heat ruptures the outer membrane and this causes the peppercorns to turn black as they dry.  White pepper comes from the outer husk being rubbed off.  Green peppercorns retain their color with the addition of sulphur dioxide during the drying process. Green peppercorns can also be pickled. Pink peppercorns are actually members of the cashew family and generally aren’t considered to be real peppercorns. (Black pepper is part of the Piperaceae family.)

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Peppercorns on the vine.

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Giselle holding the bunch she sacrificed for our amusement.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn't finish it.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn’t finish it.

Dancing Lady orchid

Dancing Lady orchid

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they're orange, they're fully ripe. The only ones I've ever seen are green.

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they’re orange, they’re fully ripe. The only ones I’ve ever seen are green.

More croton.

More croton.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.

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Vanilla pods.

At the end of the tour, we were directed to a roofed, open-air seating area for a tasting. I don’t know if any of us knew about it so it was a wonderful surprise. All of the food either came from the farm or the nearby village.

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The fully ripe starfruit. I’ve never seen it this color in Texas. When I’ve seen it in the stores, it’s always been green or green/yellow.

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The ripe starfruit isn’t overly sweet. It still has a slight tartness to it and a juiciness that makes it really refreshing.

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Our view.

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More. It was certainly relaxing. I almost didn’t want to leave.

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Haneen, Dad, Mom

Next up came the biggest surprise of the tasting. Cinnamon Tea.

It was literally the cinnamon from the plantation steeped in water for 12 hours. We all thought it had sugar in it. Nope. No sugar. Giselle insisted that the type of cinnamon used makes all the difference.

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Cinnamon Tea

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Steve enjoying his tea.

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Taking it all in.

I will say right here that I am highly allergic to cinnamon. However, I really had to try this. While I didn’t have the reaction I was expecting, I did feel a little like I was on an alcohol buzz. It was a strange feeling.

Next up, Giselle broke open a ripe cacao pod for everyone to try. it’s really hard to believe that these raw white beans would’ve eventually became really good chocolate.

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The pod. The look of it was a little startling.

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To me, the white part of the bean tasted like a cross between mango and passionfruit. It had the texture of a mango, too. I could’ve honestly eaten a whole pod on my own.

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The bean after I ate off the white part.

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Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be purple inside. It tasted like a raw bean. Which, I guess it was.

Next on the menu was a wonderful vanilla bean ice cream with a spicy chocolate cookie. Again, most, if not all, the ingredients were from the plantation.

Yum.

Yum.

Then, there was vanilla bean cheesecake with a bit of unsweetened chocolate sauce on top. It was a lighter texture than I’m accustomed to; in other words, it wasn’t New York cheesecake.

More yum.

More yum.

Giselle finished off the tasting with some unsweetened hot chocolate (we had our choice between regular and spicy cocoa [they put a bit of cayenne pepper in their spicy mix]) and a cocoa nib cookie. I think the cookie was everyone’s favorite.

Giselle making the hot chocolate.

Giselle making the hot chocolate. She made it with the cocoa and water – much like the ancient way of making hot chocolate like the Aztecs and Olmecs.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone's cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone’s cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.

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Quite possibly one of the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. The cocoa nibs had a wonderful understated flavor and the cookie wasn’t overly sweet.

Once the tasting was over, we all went (of course) to the gift shop where almost everyone stocked up on spices. I bought cinnamon sticks, cocoa, turmeric, cocoa nibs, cayenne peppers, and vanilla beans. I’m mot sure what Haneen or Mom bought, but I know Mom outbought me.

Unfortunately, Villa Vanilla doesn’t have mail order. They only sell from the plantation or in a few towns nearby. They also supply some of the local restaurants.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it would be feasible for them to set up at the farmers market in Quepos. Or, if they even want to.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

On the drive back, Mom & I decided that this was the best part of the trip. No matter what else we did, nothing would top this.

We were the first to be dropped off when the bus arrived back in Quepos. It was still fairly early in the day, so Haneen decided to do a little cooking so everyone could have some lunch. She made some egg salad, tuna salad with apples (I was surprised at ow good it was), and my favorite, a tabouli variation, but with lentils instead of cracked wheat. There really wasn’t anything left after all 10 of us landed on the food.

I come from a family of good eaters.

Haneen's creation: Lentil Tabouli

Haneen’s creation: Lentil Tabouli

The running joke all week was how many bags of cheesy poofs we went through during the week. My count was 6.

After lunch, I cleaned up and rested for a while. That’s really all I had the energy to do in the middle of the day when the humidity was over 90%.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.

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The other Costa Rican beer. Not bad.

Later in the afternoon, I walked into town with Dad and Danyah. She needed to get some aloe for the boys’ sunburns and we needed more groceries (we were out of cheesy poofs).

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Dad and Danyah.

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The photo doesn’t do justice as to just how steep this hill was.

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Bamboo.

Whenever we would walk into town, there was this one particular house we would always pass.  We finally nicknamed it The Chicken Lady’s House. She had no less than 20 roosters, chickens, and pullets running around at any one time. She became our landmark going and coming.

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At the Chicken Lady’s house.

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Try as I might, I couldn’t find the name of this church. It’s just the Catholic Church in Quepos.

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A bit of public art.

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Another street scene between rain showers.

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Local kids playing fútbol on the pitch.

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Mmm… I want one.

After a successful shopping trip, we headed back to the house and passed the night uneventfully.

 

Day 4 – Thursday, 7/9

Another activity day. Some were heading out for zip lining, some ATV-ing, some of us (me, Mom, Steve) were headed to do a walking tour in Manuel Antonio National Park.

A walking tour is generally in my wheelhouse.

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The view from my & Steve’s bedroom.

We were picked up by our absolutely fabulous guide, Pablo, and, after picking up a Dutch couple from their hotel, we were on our way to the park.

Manuel Antonio National Park  was founded in 1972 so the region’s biodiversity could be protected from developers who were already decimating the surrounding areas. The local people convinced the central government to set aside and protect the land so it could be protected and so everyone could enjoy its beauty. It’s names after the conquistador who was buried near the park.

It is Costa Rica’s smallest park (1700 acres), but boasts almost 300 species of animals. Because of the size of the park, only 600 visitors during the week and 800 visitors on the weekends are allowed in the park at any one time.  The popularity of the park belies its size; it’s basically the Yellowstone of Costa Rica.

Our first stop was at a tree near the park’s entrance. Pablo (who’s been doing tours of the park for 20 years) immediately spotted a frog in the tree. It took a while for the rest of us to see it.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and anjoying the water splashing on him.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and enjoying the water splashing on him.

After this first stop, we made it into the park. Almost immediately, Pablo set up his small telescope and pointed another creature out to us.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the fame; the males are smaller and duller in color.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the female; the males are smaller and duller in color.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant. He said the hummingbirds loved it because it holds water in its folds; the snakes love it because of the hummingbirds. Plus, it looks like a rattlesnake’s rattle.

The park was crowded with both tourists and locals either on tours, walking on their own, or just heading to the beach. All the guides pointed out sights to each other (they’re a fairly close group) so no one – guides or visitors – would miss anything.

(Some of the photos I took were through the viewfinder of Pablo’s telescope; hence, the odd framing. They still look cool, though.)

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.

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I think this is an immature Giant Grasshopper. The mature ones lose the striations and are green with large red wings.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the ingenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

And then, we saw them… Sloths. Two- and Three-Toes sloths are both common in the park. They are both arboreal, leaf-eaters, and are mainly nocturnal (although they can be active during the day).  However, the Three-Toes Sloth cannot support its own body weight, so it only comes down to the ground once a week to defecate in a small hole it digs with its stubby tail; it is also a good swimmer. The Two-Toed Sloth can support its weight and is known to crawl on the ground.

We were also told by Pablo, they don’t make the best moms. The baby clings to their fur, but, if it falls off, the mother generally isn’t willing to climb down from the safety of the tree to retrieve it.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best - hanging out.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best – hanging out.

We would see more sloths, but first, other flora and fauna.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

The Great Pablo

The Great Pablo

Peach Palms

Peach Palms

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Hibiscus

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A sleeping Red-Eyed Tree Frog

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Halloween Crab. Pablo called them the most important animal in the forest. They basically do all the composting.

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Mom spotted this one in the leaves – Helmeted Iguana.

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I’ve no idea what this is. It’s very likely a bud. The contrast to the green is striking.

I'm really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird

I’m really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird

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More green.

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A closer look at the Peach Palm

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.

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Vines on the Mangrove

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Fruit from the Peach Palm. There are quite a few animals in the forest that eat the fruit.

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Just a nice little stream.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don't know what type of fungi this is, but itwas fascinating to look at; I've never seen this type before.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don’t know what type of fungi this is, but it was fascinating to look at; I’ve never seen this type before.

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Mangrove trunk

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More fungi.

Another Mom discovery - the Owl Butterfly.

Another Mom discovery – the Owl Butterfly.

We finally made it to the beach. After traipsing through the humidity of the forest, the open air was welcome.

We stayed for about 30 minutes and rehydrated, rested, and took a few (more) photos.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Racoon. They aren't afraid of people.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Raccoon. They aren’t afraid of people.

We watched the raccoons search around for food in the usual places you would think (i.e. trashcans), but they weren’t shy about digging around in peoples’ belongings. And you thought only monkeys did that.

The world over, racoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

The world over, raccoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

Then, we looked up; along just about everyone else on the beach.

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

She was just hanging out in the tree right above the beach. If she hadn’t’ve started moving, no one would’ve noticed her. As slow as people say sloths are, she moved around quite quickly and deftly. Also, the baby did its job and held on.

Mother & baby on their way.

Mother & baby on their way.

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Bye.

Steve & I walked around a little on the beach. But, it was very high tide at the time we were there, so there wasn’t much beach to walk on if you didn’t want to get wet. Pablo told us that the reason the tide was so high so late in the morning was because they were expecting a tropical storm later in the evening. If it happened, it didn’t make it to Quepos.

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1

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Tree on the beach.

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Coconut and the beach. A natural combination.

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More beach. Very high tide.

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Looking out into the Pacific.

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Walking down to the less crowded end of the beach.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree. The fruit is poisonous, the sap causes blisters (you can see the sap – it’s the white stuff on the upper branch), and the smoke from burning the wood causes respiratory problems.

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Mom told us when she was growing up in Florida, she remembered people falling asleep under Manzanillo Trees and waking up with blisters from the sap.

After this, we started the walk back to the bus. As fun as the tour was, we were ready to go.

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I think this is what is popularly called Lengua de Gallina – Hen’s Tongue. It’s part of the orchid family. This looks like new growth.

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I can’t identify what all these plants are. I just know I really liked the way it looked.

More wood fungi.

More wood fungi.

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One last look at the beach. Fallen Mangroves and Palm trees.

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Last glimpse of the raccoons. Go forth and forage, you crazy kids.

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Termite nest. These are everywhere. Kinda creepy looking.

A Stream Anole lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

A Stream Anole Lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

We finally made our way out of the park. I noticed that the main gates were closed and we had to go through a sort of turnstile to the right (think the NYC subway). I figured the quota must’ve been reached and, if they were letting people in, it was on a one-on-one basis.

I decided to grab some coconut water for me, Mom, and Steve. I found a vendor who guaranteed his was cold, so, I bought some. Right in the shell. the price was right, too. 300₡ (Costa Rica Colones – about $.75)

Better than water at helping one’s thirst. Tasted better, too.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.

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Oh. Yeah.

On the drive back to Quepos, we asked Pablo what his favorite place is to eat in town, he suggested a soda (small mom & pop local restaurants) called Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. Mom, Steve, and I were all hungry, and Pablo hadn’t steered us wrong all day, so we took his suggestion.

It was the second best meal we had in Costa Rica.

This place was great. And cheap.

This place was great. And cheap. As locals places usually are.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

Our proprietor. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.

Our proprietor. He was curmudgeonly in a charming sort of way. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.

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My and Mom’s lunch: Arroz con Pollo. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure if it’s just a Costa Rican thing, but the chicken was shredded and the rice was fried with all the ingredients.

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Steve’s lunch: Arroz con Gambas. I had a bite; it was great, too.

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Watching the bus trying to turn into traffic. It was a show.

After lunch, we caught a cab back to the house and spent the afternoon talking about each others’ excursions. Finally, I cleaned up, had a nap, and was ready to stay in and just be quiet.

Mark had noticed a restaurant on the road towards Manuel Antonio – Emilio’s Cafe. He said it looked good, they had live music, and wanted to give it a try.

Sure. Why not?

But first, we had to contend with a couple of things.

To begin with, Older Nephew had a rather nasty sunburn that had kept him up the night before and had been made worse during the day. He said he’d worn sunscreen, but didn’t reapply. As Danyah put aloe on his back, it was decided that he was to stay at the house while we went out. He didn’t object.

Second – Some Capuchin Monkeys decided to give us a visit.

Well. Hello.

Well. Hello.

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Capuchins live in groups of up to 30. They are omnivorous and have been known to use tools like apes (i.e. chimpanzees) do. They forage in both the trees and on the ground.

This was about the time we decided we'd better go into the house.

This was about the time we decided we’d better go into the house.

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They then took over the patio.

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Enjoying the pool facilities.

I don’t know how long they stayed.

As we were leaving, Steve told Older Nephew that he expected three of the monkeys trained when he got back: a butler, an accordion player, and a cymbal player. Older Nephew just gave him with a “yeah. right.” look.

When we arrived at Emilio’s, we discovered there was Flamenco that night. Cool.

Emilio's. Very good. But touristy.

Emilio’s. Very good. But touristy.

It’s a nice space overlooking the ocean with a studied rustic charm.

Our view from the restaurant.

Our view from the restaurant.

The menu was billed as “Mediterranean”, but it was most definitely a fusion of Mediterranean and Costa Rican.

I wasn’t really all that hungry, so I opted for basically an appetizer for dinner. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a Passionfruit Mojito, though.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

I was a little disappointed. The only passionfruit I could discern was the seeds. I drank it, though.

We decided to go all out on dinner; appetizers (entradas), salads (ensaladas), main courses (platos fuerte), and desserts (postres).

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Felafel salad. Not bad, although the felafel fell apart very easily.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.

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Fried Calamari. Very good; the breading was a little on the heavy side, though.

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Dad’s dinner: Fish Fillet with Tahineh Sauce. I had a bite; it was better than I expected. Dad seemed to enjoy it.

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My dinner; Broiled Octopus with Boiled Potatoes. This was an appetizer and it filled me up. I thoroughly enjoyed this.  The potatoes had a really good flavor and were cooked just to the right amount of doneness; the same could be said for the Octopus.

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Heath’s dinner; Bass with Ginger-Curry Sauce. He seemed to enjoy it.

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Steve’s dinner: Tuna Three Ways. I can’t recall the three ways the tuna was done. But, looking at the photo, at least one looks like a glaze of some sort. He said it was really good but there was too much. I’m not even sure he finished.

Younger Nephew, out resident Potato Connoisseur, helped out those who couldn’t finish their potatoes. I think he ordered the same thing I did and it wasn’t quite enough for him; he’s a growing 15-year old after all.

Then, dessert. Apparently, Emilio’s is known for its desserts and is quite proud of that fact. The waiter will take you to the display case where you pick your dessert like you’d pick a lobster in a tank. Then, they bring it to you in a floursh 15 minutes later.

I had Coconut Flan (that I failed to photograph). It was good, but nothing memorable. While the coconut flavor was definitely pronounced, the texture was a bit grainy; like it had been cooked just a little too long.

Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I had was really good.

Heath’s dessert: Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I tried was really good.

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This was Haneen’s dessert: Ginger Cheesecake. I didn’t try any, but she said it was excellent.

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Our digestive: a rather marginal Limoncello.

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Clockwise from left: Mom, Mark, Heath, me, Dad, Steve, Haneen, Younger Nephew, Danyah

 

After dessert was finished, the Flamenco started. Now, I love Flamenco guitar and dancing. I find it, well, sensual. This group didn’t disappoint. They were fun to watch, and were all terrific performers. I have no idea whether they were local or a touring group. As far as I know, Flamenco isn’t native to Costa Rica. However, I’m sure with the Spanish colonization, it was introduced to the region at some point.

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From l-r: Ximena Araya, José Fernández, Álvaro Madrigal, Allan Naranjo

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Yup. Sexy.

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She was great. I also liked the fact she was dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Unfortunately, we had asked our cab to pick us up at the restaurant at 7:30. We didn’t know about the Flamenco (it started at 7) and there was no way to contact the driver. So, a few of us decided to go ahead and go back to the house (me included – I was exhausted and starting to not feel well). We had to ask the driver to come pick up the rest of our group at 8:30. He didn’t look at all pleased by this; I think he just wanted to go home.

I asked later if he got a really big tip. Mom assured me he did.

Steve was disappointed that Older Nephew hadn’t used his time wisely and trained a monkey butler.

 

Day 5 – Friday 7/10

Overall, it was a pretty quiet day for me. I did make breakfast for most of the crew because we still hadn’t touched the bacon. So, I scrambled the rest of the eggs, fried up most of the bacon (there was no way I was going to stand over the stove and cook one kilo of bacon), put out some cheese, made some toast, and heated up some tortillas. Everyone who ate breakfast seemed happy. I finally managed to get a few strips of bacon and a couple of tortillas.

Then, I went all housewife and did my & Steve’s laundry. Ana had managed to get the maids to leave the laundry room key so we could use the facilities. It was like a dungeon down there. And, since my Spanish isn’t great, I had to use process of elimination as to which container held the laundry detergent. I finally got lucky. Then, there were the machines; their settings were in Spanish, too. (Well, of course they would be.) I must’ve done all right because I didn’t ruin any of our clothes.

About mid-morning, I walked down to Quepos with Dad. He wanted to check out the marina take a look around town.

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We passed this little guy enjoying the hibiscus flowers.

We decided to walk down to the sea wall and towards the marina. The weekly farmers market takes place on the wall, and I wanted to be sure I knew where it was.

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I’m guessing this is some sort of branding. Can’t seem to get away from Texas.

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Quepos

The next few photos are some of the bench art by the wall. I think there were about a dozen in all.

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When we got to the wall, the breeze was a blessing. It was a hot, humid day with almost no breeze in the canopy.

The Sanjuan

Sanjuan

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Looking towards the Pacific and marina at the sea wall.

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The Fisherman

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Walking down the sea wall.

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I don’t know whether these guys were joy riding or fishermen coming in or going out.

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I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to represent – my guess is a vegetable seller – but he just looked so sad with those weepy eyes.

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Coconut Palm

We finally made it down to the marina. The marina was opened in 2010 as a way to rebuild the old pier built by the United Fruit Company and as a way to bring in new business and jobs to the town. It has some upper-end restaurants and shopping on the grounds, but the real viewing was all of the fishing boats and yachts the 1% keep at the slips.

I felt like I was spending money just standing there. The marina did look a little incongruous given the surroundings.

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The marina.

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Some of the larger boats.

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A couple of the 1%-er boats.

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Morning Glory.

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Firecrackers

After exploring the marina, Dad and I decided to get some lunch. We went back to Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. I couldn’t resist.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could've eaten this everyday from this same soda.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could’ve eaten this everyday from the same soda.

After lunch, I did a little gift/souvenir shopping while Dad talked to the tour operator next door about something. After this, we headed back to the house and settled in for the afternoon.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

That night, Steve & I decided to have a date night. We simply wanted to have a little time alone. Pablo told us of a place he liked called La Cantina on the Manuel Antonio road. He said they had great barbecue, especially their ribs.

Since it was on the Manuel Antonio road, I was skeptical of how good the food could really be. The restaurants on the road are generally catering to tourists rather than locals and the food can be rather dumbed down.

The first thing I noticed when our taxi dropped us off was the cold case carousel of entrees by the front entrance – for me, never a good sign. The second thing was the very heavy look to the place. As with all of the restaurants we’d been in so far, this one was open-air, but the very heavy wood furniture and fixtures still made the place seem somewhat claustrophobic.

La Cantina.

La Cantina.

To mitigate this feeling, I went all ’70’s and ordered a Piña Colada. I felt it matched the decor.

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My Piña Colada. Despite appearances (I had to keep stirring it), it was quite good.

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Steve’s drink: Peachy Mango.

After the waiter took our order (we didn’t get any barbecue), we saw Squirrel Monkeys frolicking in the trees. They were a big favorite for all of the tourists in the restaurant. Any locals and the staff were unimpressed. I guess they see this every day.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

After the monkey show, dinner arrived.

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My dinner: Cazuela de Mariscos al Curry (Curry Seafood Stew). This was good, but nothing memorable. I seem to recall enjoying the curry sauce with the rice more than the seafood itself.

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Steve’s dinner: Pargo Crujiente (Crispy Red Snapper). He really enjoyed his meal. I told him to be sure to get any meat in the head. As you can see, this was a large fish; he managed to finish it.

After dinner, we decided to go downstairs and see some music and get some dessert. The combo was a trio of local guys who sang old standards and Spanish cover versions of American pop songs. They weren’t great, but one had to give them an “E” for effort.

The trio. They really tried.

The trio. They really tried.

The staff seemed to be either overwhelmed or disorganized – it was hard to tell. The restaurant wasn’t that busy since it was still relatively early. Since our cab was picking us up at 8:30, and they seemed to be dragging their feet on getting Steve’s dessert and coffee, I had to do one of the things I know servers hate – ask them to speed it up because we had to leave. (I didn’t say exactly that, but you get my meaning.)

I decided against dessert; Steve had tres Leches Cake and coffee.

I decided against dessert; Steve had Tres Leches Cake and coffee.

Steve finished, we paid, and we went to meet our taxi.

The meat counter.

The meat counter. The cooked meat next to the raw – ugh. I know it goes back on the grill, but, ugh. I’m sure it happens in restaurants more than I know.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

When we got back to the house, everyone else was there having a pizza party. I guess they enjoyed it because there was only one slice of cheese pizza left.

As I was falling asleep, I could hear the Howler Monkeys.

 

Day 6 – Saturday, 7/11

Honestly, this was the day I’d been looking forward to all week: Farmers Fair (Ferias del Agricultor). The ferias is set up on Friday night and is up and running full blast by Saturday morning. We went early to beat the heat and crowds.

When I mentioned this to Mom before we left on the trip, I asked her if she wanted to go. Her affirmative response was immediate. Steve decided to tag along, too.

It was another humid morning – as one would expect from the tropics – but once we were down at the sea wall, the breezes really helped to mitigate the oppressiveness.

It was a wonderful market. There were vendors who sold shoes and underwear, some who sold souvenirs, but most sold fresh produce.

For the more wide-angle shots, I didn’t really find it necessary to ask the vendors if I could take photos. I’m sure they either didn’t notice or they’re used to it.  However, if I was going to buy from and photograph a stand specifically, I would ask the vendor, “¿Peudo tomar su photo?” – May I take your photo? They were all very nice about it and said “sí”. It’s just a courtesy thing.

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Souvenir stand. I should’ve waited to buy the gifts.

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Looked like some really cute, if formulaic, stuff.

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Tomatoes and potatoes are indigenous to Central America. Carrots come along probably in the 18th or 19th century.

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Coconuts and what looked like Mamones Chinos (limes that have a hard shell and soft fruit. They are related to the lychee)

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More vendor stands

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At all of the stands, the produce was so beautiful.

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These look like Fuji Apples, but I can’t be 100% sure.

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Pineapples. Of course.

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Mangoes

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We bought a beautiful piece of tuna and some shrimp.

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I was excited to find Otaheiti Apples.

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Mandarin Limes.

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Another beautiful stand

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Bananas

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I think these are the fruit of the Peach Palm. I was also surprised by the number of vendors selling lychees.

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Shoes and undies

Steve went looking for breakfast for he & I while Mom & I were shopping. He came across a gentlemen selling tamales. Tamales for breakfast? Yes, please.

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There were 2 tamales per package. They were huge. And still very hot from the steamer.

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I’d never had tamales like this before. They certainly had the usual masa base, but these also contained rice plus chunks of vegetables and pork. They were also very soft, unlike Mexican-style tamales.

Those tamales were damn delicious. And, I couldn’t finish the second one. I tried to get Mom to try some, but she said she’d already eaten and wasn’t hungry.

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Our view while we ate breakfast.

We left shortly after this. It was time to get moving and the tweakers nearby were starting to concern us a little.

Steve decided to stay in town and look around while Mom and I took our purchases back to the house. On the way, I ducked into a carnecería and bought a half kilo of chicharron. They were still warm from the fryer.

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The maids pointed out this little guy to us when we got home. I have no idea how he didn’t just slide down off the glass. He was there most of the day just sleeping and sunning.

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My bag of goodness.

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Now, People, THAT is a chicharron.

I spent most of the afternoon finishing my & Steve’s laundry, reading, packing, and just generally being quiet. I was then distracted by a line of Army Ants moving up one of the walls towards a window carrying a piece of chicharron. I regret now not getting a picture.

Then, Mom called me outside and showed me this.

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Toucan Sam

I was lucky I got the photo I did. He flew off almost as soon as I snapped the shutter.

About 4pm, I got started on dinner. We bought potatoes, chayote, tomatoes, avocados, Mandarin limes, pineapple, mangoes, onions, Otaheiti Apples, tuna, and prawns. Along with all of these things, I decided to clean out the fridge as much as possible since we were leaving the next morning and had to either throw away anything left or simply leave it behind.

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Scallions, onion, chayote, potatoes

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Tomato-Avocado Salad

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Some beautiful large prawns.

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Mangos & pineapple; otaheiti & green apples; tomato-avocado salad; sliced tomatoes

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A lovely loin of tuna. I’m not sure what variety. Most likely, it was yellowfin.

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Cooking the potatoes. These took so long to cook, I was despairing about 90 minutes later.

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The chayote, on the other hand, cooked up rather quickly and was better than I remembered. Even one of my brothers-in-law, who hates squash, tried it.

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Cutting down the loin. The knives I used were pretty dull, so the cuts weren’t as even as I like. I just pan-seared the tuna until it was a medium-well. I figured that was the best way to go since not everyone likes rare or medium-rare tuna.

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Mandarin Limes. These are great. They have a slightly sweeter taste than Persian Limes (what we usually see).

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Dinner finished – finally. I made a sort-of Buerre Blanc with what was left of the butter, onions, and limes. I also sliced the rest of the cheese and put it out. The boys kept nibbling at everything before I finished cooking.

Everyone seemed to enjoy dinner. I was happy because there were almost no leftovers and I didn’t have to do dishes.

Then, came dessert. Heath had gone to a bakery in Quepos earlier in the day and picked up a lovely chocolate cake (it had the texture of a Tres Leches) for Older Nephew.

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Older Nephew with his congratulations cake.

Not long after I, and most everyone else went to bed, I received this photo via text from Steve:

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Yikes.

It turned out he and the boys were sitting around talking and Older Nephew noticed this on the couch. Steve tried to dispatch it, but he only succeeded in making it scurry back under the couch. Steve speculated that it had a nest either under or in the cushion; or, since we had the doors and windows open almost all the time, it could’ve crawled in who knows when.

They took all the cushions off the couch (except for the seat) and placed signs in English and Spanish basically saying “Don’t sit here. Scorpion in the cushion.” If that thing was living in the cushions, we were all really lucky it didn’t come out and sting anyone. Scorpion stings aren’t really too harmful to anyone who’s healthy, but they feel like a red-hot needle poking into you.

 

Day 7 – Sunday, 7/12

Not too much to tell about Sunday. It was travel back home day for us.

I went over to Haneen & Mark’s balcony outside their room and took a few final photos.

 

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Looking into the canopy.

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One final photo of a Flycatcher.

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Looking into the canopy.

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One final photo.

Estilio arrived just before 9 to pick us up to take us to the airport. Our flight was at 2pm, and with the drive and check-in, we needed all the time we could reasonably get.

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The American check-in line. Sigh.

Because Mom & Dad have some sort of priority status on American, they were able to check themselves and Danyah’s crew (Dad had booked all their tickets) in the first class ticketing line. The rest of us had to schlub through the economy class line.

Just as we were about to be at the head of the line, however, a customer service rep took us out of the line and checked us in at one of the kiosks. Problem solved.

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Paying the exit tax.

That’s all. Just two more flights, complete chaos at immigration in Miami, and a flight delay, we all finally made it back home.

 

I’ll definitely go back. Costa Rica was so much more fun and beautiful than I imagined. Those coupled with the great food and lovely people, plus hanging with my family for a week, made it a wonderful and memorable trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Bend with The Nephew 4

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Sahar

To begin with, the Big Bend Region of Texas and New York City are two places I’ll use just about any excuse whatsoever to visit. In both places, I’ll think “I want to live here”,  “How can I convince Husband Steve to agree to move here”, and “Damn. The food is great”.  Then, I come home, get off the vacation high, and come to the realization that both of these places are escapes for me; if I lived there, I would look to escape them as well.

Of the two, of course, the escape to Big Bend is much more easily attained. For you first-timers, to go from Austin to Alpine (our first & third nights’ destination) is a roughly 400-mile jaunt via US290 to IH10 to US67 to TX118.  To get to Terlingua/Study Butte (our second night’s stay), an 83-mile drive, just take TX118 south. Well, you can take TX118 as a direct route to Terlingua/Study Butte, but we took the long way through Marathon and drove through, and explored, Big Bend National Park.

Or, as I heard someone say once, “Drive 6 hours west, turn left and drive another hour and a half south”.

By the way, for the uninitiated, Marathon is pronounced “Marath’n” and Study “Stoody”. You don’t want to sound like a rube or anything like that.

 

The reason Husband Steve & I decided on this trip was to have, quite possibly, the last summer with our Older Nephew.  He graduated from high school this year and is starting college in the fall.  Husband & I were trying to decide on a graduation gift and landed on a trip to Big Bend. When we told Nephew, he seemed as pleased as his 17-year-old self would let him get. In fact, he almost smiled.

Nephew has been to the Big Bend region before  – Marfa and Ft. Davis. He’s been to the lights, stayed at El Paisano, and explored the fort. He’s just not been to the park. Well, now, here was his chance. Honestly, I think the promised trip to Mexico sealed the deal.

 

Day 1 – Thursday, June 11.

The trip started off rather inauspiciously.

I asked Nephew when I picked him up at the airport on Wednesday if he remembered his passport so he could go to Mexico. He said he remembered the extra paperwork his mother (my sister) gave him – a letter stating Steve & I were in charge of him and her passport information – but failed to bring his passport. His quote was “Everything I told myself to remember, I forgot” (this included a book of Big Bend trails and a map I loaned him). One unplanned phone call to his no doubt exasperated mom secured an overnight delivery of Nephew’s passport.

The passport arrived before 10am on Thursday. Victory.

However, as things go with Steve & I, even though we planned on being on the road by 10, it didn’t happen until 11. We basically needed the extra time to load the SUV I rented.

The behemoth we rented. It was like driving a bus.

The behemoth we rented. It was like driving a bus.

With a quick stop in Fredericksburg for gas, restrooms, and snacks, we were really, finally, on our way.

Nephew

Nephew. For someone, like his aunt, who loathes having his picture taken, we got quite a few photos. Though not always willingly on his part.

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You tend to forget about those promises you made to yourself when you travel.

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Nice to see the Llano River with water.

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Husband Steve. Who did all of the driving out to Alpine. Whatta guy.

As we drove along IH10, I saw the opening where I could finally feel like I could breathe a little:

Whew.

Whew.

Starting to see mountains

Starting to see mountains

Fluffy clouds with a little sun

Fluffy clouds with a little sun.

 

Rain to the south.

Rain to the south.

Clear to the north

Clear to the north

I think I saw this when we stopped for gas near Ft. Stockton. Nephew really started to get excited - in his own way - at this point.

I think I saw this when we stopped for gas near Ft. Stockton. I’m not sure if this was for the state or national park. No matter; Nephew really started to get excited – in his own way – at this point.

We did run into some rain going into Alpine. It seems as if the rain has taken up permanent residence in Texas this year.

We finally made it to Alpine. It was a joyous time. And not only because we’d been driving for 7 hours.

We stayed for nights one and three at the Antelope Lodge. We’ve stayed at this old motor court before and rather enjoyed its rustic, slightly quirky charm. Plus, it’s cheap.

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The blooming prickly pear at Antelope Lodge.

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The blooms on whatever tree this is smelled heavenly. Remember, I’d been stuck in a car with two men for almost 7 hours. It was most certainly welcome.

Our home for nights #1 & #3: Antelope Lodge, rooms 11 & 12.

Our home for nights #1 & #3: Antelope Lodge, rooms 11 & 12. I was digging the way they had a 2×4 holding up the crossbeam.

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Prickly Pear fruit – meh. Prickly Pear flowers – always beautiful.

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Antelope’s courtyard.

 

Before we left Austin, Steve made reservations at Reata in Alpine for our one “fancy” meal while we were in this part of the country. For whatever strange reason I made up in my head, I’ve avoided eating there whenever we’ve been in Alpine. I have this thing against steak houses, I guess.

Even after this meal, I still have a thing against steakhouses. Just not this steakhouse. Or, rather, a Texas Cowboy Cuisine establishment.

I guess I was skeptical about the food overall. I tend to avoid “buzz” restaurants, and this one still has a bit of a legend buzz around it even after having been open for 20 years. I don’t consider myself overly picky or a “foodie”, but I just always had a mental block.

I suppose ANY restaurant being open for 20 years deserves some buzz. I mean, the restaurant business is a cruel one.

I was happy to be proven wrong. Our food was plentiful – as one would expect – but was also very enjoyable.  The decor was a simple, pared-down, but slightly upscale rustic. (I happened to notice bottles of Silver Creek wine in the alcove above us. I couldn’t quite see what vintage they were; but considering the cheapest bottle is $70 retail, this place is no hole-in-the-wall.) Our server, whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, was a young man studying at Sul Ross. He was a wonderful server. Attentive without hovering. That counts for a lot.

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I included the highway marker just to prove I was there.

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Nephew’s & Steve’s choice: Chile Relleno with Crab-Stuffed Bacon-Wrapped Jalapenos.

I’m guessing it was good, because they both finished their plates. I believe the Chile Relleno one of Reata’s signature dishes.

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My dinner: Chicken Fried Steak.

My dinner was excellent. There wasn’t more breading than meat, the gravy wasn’t pasty, everything was well seasoned, and the green beans weren’t overcooked.

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These Jalapeño-Cheese Grits.  That’s a dinner plate, by the way.

So… When I see grits on a dinner menu, I’m generally compelled to try them. The grits were really good. Plenty of cheese and spice. The one drawback – too salty. If the kitchen backed down a little on the salt, these would’ve been excellent. There was a lot so the guys helped me eat them.

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Part of the studied upscale rustic charm. A saddle in front of a window facing onto a mural of cattle on the range.

Would I go back? Sure. It’s definitely on the list.

Alpine at night.

A little of Alpine at night.

 

We did a quick walk around Alpine just to work off some of dinner. Nephew told us he’d been through Alpine before but ever really got to see the town. Because it was already dark when we left the restaurant, he didn’t see too much, but we did walk up and down Holland and some of the side streets before deciding to call it a night. We wanted to get an early start on Friday.

Day one at the Park. And the trip into Mexico.

 

Day 2 – June 12, Friday

The day started early. 6am. Steve wanted to be on the road to the park by 7. We somehow managed to accomplish this.

While he was getting ready and loading the behemoth again, I went to get Nephew. I opened the door and saw him doing push-ups on the patio. I had to give him credit for already being far more active than I care to be that time of the morning.

And, so, off we went.

 

Good Morning, Alpine.

Good Morning, Alpine.

Steve & I remembered a coffee shop we rather liked the last time we stayed in Marathon.  Since it was only about 30 miles, we decided to hold off on breakfast until then.

Marathon (or Nancy’s) Coffee Shop is right there on US90 in Marathon as you’re on your way to the park.

Again, as I’ve discovered for Big Bend, the food is plentiful, very good, and reasonable. The strong coffee is a plus.

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Good Morning, Marathon.

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Nephew’s Breakfast: Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit. This ain’t McDonald’s.

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Husband’s Breakfast: Migas. His personal favorite.

I forgot to take a picture of my breakfast because I was so focused on getting the guys’ breakfasts before they started eating. I had Pancakes with Bacon. I needed the carb and protein loading.

After a (perhaps too) leisurely breakfast and a discussion of what we were going to do that day, we finally hit the road to the park.

One of these visits I’m going to get a picture of those turkey buzzards sunning themselves.

After about an hour and a half, we finally made it to the second stop of the day, Panther Junction. Since the Persimmon Gap checkpoint was closed, we had to buy our permit there. It’s also a convenient excuse to get out of the car, stretch, and buy stuff.  I like it, too, because it is actually very well landscaped, and the restrooms are reasonably clean.

Panther Junction

Panther Junction

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Panther Junction.

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Panther Junction.

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Panther Junction

After we finished at Panther Junction, we headed back on the main park road towards Boquillas Canyon.

Boquillas Canyon is rated a “moderate” trail. It’s not very long, but it is steep. And, on a hot day for a barely in-shape middle-aged woman like me, it was, shall we say, more on the moderate-to-difficult scale. I definitely had my moments. I used my breathlessness and knees as excuses to constantly stop and take photographs while Steve & Nephew trotted way ahead of me.

Boquillas

Boquillas

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About halfway up the trail and looking into Mexico.

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At the top for breath stop #2 and looking into the canyon.

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Turning around to see the Rio Grande and the US side.

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Steve & Nephew on the trail to the canyon. They grew impatient with me and wandered on. Can’t say I blamed them, really.

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Grinding holes of the indigenous people. Seeds, roots, and likely bone were ground in these holes as an ancient mortar-and-pestle.

Slightly differernt view of Boquillas Canyon.

Slightly different view of Boquillas Canyon. A little more green.

Still slowly going down the trail.

Still slowly going down the trail.

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You have to really work hard to take a bad photo here.

Once one leaves the trail and gets down to the canyon and the River, the shade is such a welcome relief and reward for hiking the trail at mid-morning.

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Steve and Nephew contemplating their next moves.

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Nephew’s next move? Crossing the river. It was a subversive thing for him.

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I was oddly proud.

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In my wanderings while the guys were doing their own thing, I managed to capture this dragonfly. It’s almost like it wanted me to take its picture.

We ended up staying in the canyon, by my estimation, for well over an hour. Nephew, Steve, and I all had our different reasons. Mine? It was out of the sun. If you’ve ever been to Big Bend, or even just in a higher elevation, you know the sun can be brutal. Especially in a west Texas summer.  Any shade is welcome. Plus, it was just so peaceful, even after another family arrived.

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A place like this makes you realize how artificial borders are. US on the left, Mexico on the right, the Rio Grande as the barrier between two countries.

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I wonder how many hundreds, or even thousands, of years it’s taken these silt layers to build up. Just a little more time and pressure, it’d all be shale.

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Looking back at the trail we knew we’d eventually have to climb again.

Here was their reason for staying in the canyon: rock throwing contest.

The menfolk throwing rocks into the river

The menfolk throwing rocks into the river trying to hit pieces of driftwood

This fascinated me. Not sure why.

This fascinated me. Not sure why.

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Looking up

With no small amount of resignation, we decided it was time to go.

With no small amount of resignation, we decided it was time to go.

Now, for the highlight of Friday’s part of the trip – going to Boquillas del Carmen.

I can still remember when there was a time where one could go freely between Texas and Mexico without worrying about needing a passport. Your driver’s license would do fine when you wanted to cross back. I myself did this numerous times – mostly for the super cheap Margaritas, booze, and tchotchkes. Plus, it was fun to go down with a bunch of friends for a road trip.

However, as we are all painfully aware, this all changed after 2001.  Now, to simply cross the river and travel essentially one mile into Mexico, you must to have a passport. The days of cheap anything are gone, too.

Steve & I went across the river about 2 months after the crossing opened in 2013. Then, the recovery had just started and it was still almost ghost-town like. We had heard that there had been some great progress in Boquillas del Carmen since then, so we were anxious to see what had happened.

Now, Nephew’s major in college is going to be Spanish. He’s already pretty fluent so we pressed him into service as our interpreter.  I don’t think he really enjoyed it – especially when we called him out for claiming that he really didn’t know any. We told him it would be a good thing if at least one of us (my Spanish is mediocre at best, Steve’s is pretty much non-existent) could speak to the locals in their native tongue rather than make them try to understand us.

It’s called cultural respect.

Boquillas Crossing

Boquillas Crossing

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Welcoming one and all to Boquillas. Providing you have the right documents.

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Heading to the River.

The Rio Grande. Rio Grande del Norte. Rio Bravo.

The Rio Grande. Rio Grande del Norte.

The river wasn’t as high as it was in 2013. I was fine with that. I remember the last time, the river was so high and fast, I honestly thought we’d capsize.

The method and means of crossing was the same as before. A canoe came over to take us across while Victor the Singing Man serenaded us.

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Our captain. I didn’t get his name. This was his job. Rowing Gringos back and forth across the river all day. Be sure to tip your captain.

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Looking down the river from the canoe.

We told Nephew that there are 4 ways of getting to town – walking, truck, horse, donkey. He said he wanted a horse because he had an image to maintain.

O… K…

Well. Guess what. No horses that day. Just donkeys. Or, in keeping with the spirit of things – burros.  Since it’s hard for me to climb on a horse, I was fine with a burro since that was what I was going to request anyway.

After paying Victor for the river crossing and tipping him for his singing (be sure to bring lots of small bills), Jesus was assigned to us as our guide for our visit. Sweet man.

So, after helping the gringa & gringos up on the burros, we were off.

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The back of my burro’s head. I didn’t get its name. It followed directions well, though.

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Steve.

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Nephew. Looking happy despite having his image blown.

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Steve on his noble steed. Like the horse he rode the last time, it didn’t like following directions.

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The road to Boquillas.

At the hitching post

At the hitching post

Once we got into town, we had to go through the ritual of the Mexican passport office (which was crowded) and then sought out lunch. We decided on Jose Falcon’s. When Steve & I went to Boquillas in 2013, we ate lunch at Boquillas Restaurant.

If I had to compare between the two, I’d’ve chosen to go back to Boquillas Restaurant. This isn’t to say that the food Jose Falcon’s wasn’t good (and, yes; I know the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex), it just felt very touristy and a little dumbed-down to me. But, with a touristy town, I guess that’s to be expected. They even have a souvenir shop attached. I didn’t patronize it.

So, after settling in and buying a Jesus a Coca (he didn’t want anything to eat), we ordered lunch.

Jose Falcon's.

Jose Falcon’s.

Steve's drink of choice - the Michelada

Steve’s drink of choice – the Michelada

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I was grateful to get this.

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Nephew and his Coca.

The chips & salsa course

The chips & salsa course. I found the salsa a little bland, but the pickled jalapenos and guacamole were outstanding. Steve ate most of the guacamole in about 5 minutes.

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Mine & Steve’s lunch: Red Cheese Enchiladas. They were very good, but nothing unforgettable.

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Nephew’s lunch: Quesadilla. He actually did get more than one on the plate. I was slow with the camera.

After a lazy lunch, Jesus took us on a tour of the town. There were definitely more buildings than the last time. The town has also been electrified since March of this year. It was an international effort that is beginning to take the town out of the past and bring it into the present. Hopefully, there will be more improvements that will make the Boquillas’ residents lives better and not just give tourists another place to exploit.

As we walked around, we noticed electrical wiring, satellite dishes, more construction (including a new primary school), and a generally more optimistic atmosphere. Of course, the tourist-based economy is back in full swing. Steve bought me a small bag with a cut-out burro design from Jesus’ grandfather and I bought a little bead Ocotillo from a little boy who came up to us. The children are, admittedly, almost impossible to resist.

The main street in Boquillas

Boquillas main street. A few more buildings.

The legendary Park Bar. They painted it again. Last time I was here, it was blue.

The legendary Park Bar. They painted it again. Last time I was here, it was blue. Since we had Nephew, we didn’t go in. Next time.

Admittedly, I'm into what is now called "ruin porn". There's generally a dignity in these old buildings. I'm sure that they'll be repaired and repurposed at some point.

Admittedly, I’m into what is now called “ruin porn”. There’s generally a dignity in these old buildings. I’m sure that they’ll be repaired and repurposed at some point. Plus, I like taking pictures of doorways.

This one has at least been repainted.

This one has at least been repainted.

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I know this is a tough existence, but imagine waking up to that view every day. Perhaps I’m being a entitled romantic.

The church has been rebuilt. Something the town is very proud of, and rightly so.

The church has been rebuilt. Something the town is very proud of, and rightly so.

Steve left some money in the collection box.

Steve left some money in the collection box.

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I’m not very religious, but I believe sacred spaces are just that, sacred.

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I can’t really describe this, except that I love it. Another abandoned building that will either be repurposed or recycled.

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More homes. I didn’t get any photos, but some of the homes had bright blue satellite dishes. Creeping technology.

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The solar panels Boquillas is so rightly proud of. My first thought was, why can’t the US do this on a larger scale?

After taking care of our exit paperwork back at the passport office, it was time for us to cross back to America.

We’ll be back and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Boquillas.

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So, yeah. Steve snuck this one of me & Nephew. So, now I can really prove I was there. I also had one hell of a sunburn at this point.

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On the way back to the river.

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Nephew basically asking “why are you taking my picture? Again.” Me: “I’m trying to make memories, Dude.”

Steve with Jesus back at the corral.

Steve with Jesus back at the corral.

We landed back in Big Bend, went through passport control (a strange experience in and of itself), and decided to head to the Basin.

I think this is a Century Plant. I've never seen one quite so high.

Harvard Agave. I’ve never seen one quite so high. At least not one that was alive.

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There’s that 50% chance of rain we read about.

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West Texas version of Jack’s Beanstalk.

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One of the things I love the most about Big Bend. The emptiness and occasional isolation. The beauty is a plus, too.

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Heading to the Basin

Because we were gluttons for punishment that day, we thought we’d try the Basin Loop Trail. It’s less than 2 miles round trip and not too difficult. At least, it wouldn’t be if you hadn’t had all your strength sapped by the afternoon sun.

Starting the Basin Trail

Starting the Basin Loop Trail

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Casa Grande

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Looking into the Basin.

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Once again, the men left me to my own devices.

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I like to get a bit of sun rays or even a slight glare in the photographs. Makes things more dramatic.

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Scenery like this makes me forget the tired, the bugs, and the sunburn.

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It was so green. For Big Bend.

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The Window. The first time I came to the park, a ranger told me this was one of the most popular spots. Every time I see it, it still strikes me with a certain amount of awe.

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Indulge me. I was playing with a camera app on my phone and filtered the photograph.

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Ditto.

It was about this time that we all three decided to turn back. We could hear thunder, the sun was beginning to get low, and we were being eaten alive by bugs. At least I was. Steve & Nephew seemed immune to them. Plus, we were really tired, filthy, and hungry.

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Plants growing out of seemingly solid rock always amaze me. It’s the simple things, ya know?

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Casa Grande and the incoming rain.

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Nolina.

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Ward Mountain.

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it seemed like there were literal forests of Sotol all over the park this time.

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Goldeneyes.

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Sotol at the Window.

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Looking towards Casa Grande through a seeming forest of Sotol.

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With the wide-angle lens.

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I think this is Toll Mountain.

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One last photograph of the Basin.

I could swear as we walked past one patch of rocks and underbrush, I distinctly heard a rattle. I may have been mistaken as to the source of the rattle, but I thought it best to move on. As I got further away, it stopped. If it was a rattlesnake, it did its job well.

For night #2, we decided to stay in Terlingua/Study Butte. The logic was this – after driving for 7 hours, we didn’t want to go any further than Alpine the first night. For the second night, we didn’t want to drive back to Alpine after spending all day at the southern end of the park.

So, Chisos Mining Company Motel it was.

After unpacking, resting a little, and scraping off the day, we headed to the Terlingua Trading Company for a little shopping (t-shirts, always t-shirts) and to the Starlight Theater for dinner.

When we got to the theater for dinner, we were told it would be an unknown amount of time before they had a table ready for us. So, while Steve & Nephew waited, I wandered.

Every time I see the Ghost Town there’s a little less of it, it seems. Weather, age, and, no doubt, human intervention keep the town in constant flux. Perhaps if I had on proper footwear and wasn’t so afraid of critters or cactus as it was getting slowly darker, I would’ve delved deeper into the brush and found more evidence of the dwellings. As it was, I stayed on the outskirts for the most part.

I don't know if the rusted machinery or impliments were simply left after the mine closed or have been artfully placed by the locals, but they are interesting artifacts to Terlingua's past.

I don’t know if the rusted machinery or implements were simply left after the mine closed or have been artfully placed by the locals, but they are interesting artifacts to Terlingua’s past.

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Poking around the Ghost Town.

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Ocotillo and a what I think is a cultivator.

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Ghost Town. Looks like what would’ve been one of the larger homes.

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Looking down into the brush I didn’t dare wander into in sandals.

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I have to honestly say, I’ve never seen the Big Bend region so green.

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Another doorway picture.

I ran out of the brush positive I saw a tarantula. (Although, now, I think it was just a figment of my imagination.)

I spied Steve and Nephew still waiting for the table, so I took a few more photos of the rusted equipment.

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I’m guessing this is a grader of some sort.

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Gears.

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Thos Ocotillo just looked like a huge spider coming out of this mass of Candelilla.

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Candelilla.

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A Ford V8 that’s been sitting outside the theater for as long as I can remember.

I decided I’d better join the men. Just as I looked up, Steve was waving for me to come in. Perfect timing.

I like the Starlight Theater. It has a nice atmosphere, cold beer, and good food. Nothing spectacular, just solid, good food. Perfect after a day of tromping around the park. Sometimes, of you’re lucky, there will even be a show going on.

A slightly more artsy view of the Starlight Theater's facade.

A slightly more artsy view of the Starlight Theater’s facade.

Nephew, even though he’s a growing 17-year-old, put Steve and me to shame with his restraint when it came to eating. During the entire trip, he ate (mostly) reasonably and knew when to stop. Me and Steve? Let’s just say we like to eat. The two of us are just barely in shape (we do gym it), middle-aged, and sometimes let our appetites get the better of us. My own rationalization of the eating thing is that I’m a professional and I really need to do all the research I can. Steve goes along for support.

Very gentlemanly of him.

My Dinner: Chicken Fried Wild Boar with beer-based gravy.

My Dinner: Chicken Fried Wild Boar with beer-based gravy.

I’ve had this dish before. It’s very good. Not too much breading in comparison to the meat, excellent mashed potatoes, and the vegetables weren’t overcooked.  If memory serves, the last time I had this, it was closer to a cream gravy on top. This time, the gravy was a beer base using a beer from Big Bend Brewery. I’m not sure which one it was and I forgot to ask. But, it was just a little too much. I don’t know if this is the recipe or the cook got a little too liberal with the beer, but it was almost too strong a taste. And I like beer. I ate all of my meal because I was really hungry, but I had to mitigate the beer flavor with the potatoes and bread a lot more than I would’ve liked.

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Nephew’s very reasonable dinner choice: Turkey Club.

I managed to catch this before Nephew drowned his fried in ketchup. He asked for no mayonnaise, so I think he was brought a dry sandwich. It may have had some mustard, but I don’t remember. He said, except for the dryness, it was very good.

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Steve’s dinner: Filet Mignon with salad (not pictured)

Personally, I have no use for Filet Mignon. There’s a reason it’s usually wrapped in bacon. Because it doesn’t have any flavor. It’s expensive because there’s only 2 tenderloins on any given animal. But, Steve was happy, so who am I to judge. He said it was cooked just the way he liked it and he ate everything on the plate.

Just as we were tucking into dinner, the entertainment started. We literally had a front row seat.  The singer was someone who works in the kitchen at the theater who I guess they let sing for a little extra cash. He was pretty good at improvising and came up with a verse talking about Nephew’s awesome hat and the fact that he was a gentleman and took it off when he was inside.  Steve tipped him. The singer, I mean.

The rest of the trip, Nephew referred to his hat as “My Awesome Hat”.

Our entertinament for the evening.

Our entertainment for the evening.

After dinner, I asked Steve to stop at the Cemetery so we could take a look. I like to poke around cemeteries (just for historical curiosity, mind you) and Nephew had never been there, so we stopped.

There’s just something about being in a cemetery at night that helps take on a different feel and significance.

This particular cemetery is a little more haunting to me than most because of the sheer number of unknowns and young ones that are buried here. Some of the newer graves, though, helped to mitigate the feeling, though. They simply looked like some real parties going on.

Terlingua Sunset over the Cemetery

Terlingua Sunset over the Cemetery

One of the unknowns

One of the unknowns. At least to most.

One of the younger ones.

One of the younger ones. At least we know her name.

Par-Tay!

Par-Tay!

Some solid construction and loving tributes here.

Some solid construction and loving tributes here.

More graves of no doubt the mine workers.

More graves of no doubt the mine workers.

Silhouettes

Silhouettes

Leaving some coins in the alcove.

Leaving some coins in the alcove.

Once it became too dark to see well, we headed back to the hotel.

Nephew was a couple of buildings away from us. I wasn’t too happy about that. After some eye-rolling as I lectured him about locking up, etc., we dropped him off and said good night. And be ready to go at 7am.

Them to our room.

For what it is, The Chisos Mining Co. Hotel is pretty good. The rooms are pretty bare-bone, but if all you’re using them for is sleeping and showering, they’ll do.

Just to let you know.

Just to let you know.

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Our accommodations

After we unpacked, Steve & I sat on the porch for a while and just talked, watched the lightning in the park, and looked up at the stars. A good way to end the day.

And, off to sleep.

 

Day 3 – Saturday, June 13

Another early morning. Steve wanted to get an earlier start than we had on Friday. At least we didn’t have as far to go to get to the park. While he packed up, I went to fetch Nephew. There he was, doing his push-ups. I was barely awake and suddenly felt old.

We saw a place the night before called Big Bend Resort & Adventures Cafe and so decided to go there for breakfast.

It was certainly what I expected. Nothing fancy, just basic breakfast. Not that I’m complaining. It was really good.

Again, Nephew put Steve & me to shame with his restraint.

Nephew's breakfast: the humble Breakfast Sandwich.

Nephew’s breakfast: the humble Breakfast Sandwich.

Nephew opted for the simple. And, he finished in 3 minutes.

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My breakfast: Biscuits & Gravy.

I honestly had no idea it would be so much. It was delicious, though. The gravy was just the right consistency, not at all greasy or pasty, and had just the right amount of salt. I should’ve asked for crispier hash browns, though. I did end up giving Nephew some of my bacon.

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Steve’s Breakfast: The Basic Breakfast

Compared to me, Steve had a child’s plate. He was happy. He even had some of my breakfast.

After looking over the map and showing Nephew where we were going, we headed back to the park. Our goal: Santa Elena Canyon.

Steve and I have tried twice before to go. Both times, flash floods stopped us. After the storms we saw the night before, we wondered if we’d miss out again. We listened to the in-park radio feed and didn’t hear anything about the canyon being closed, so we forged ahead.

But not before making Steve stop so I could take more photographs. I’m lucky he’s a patient man. Usually.

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Ocotillo at sunrise

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The green dot is a reflection of the sun off the lens.

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I think this is Rattlesnake Mountain

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I really don’t want to see what crawls out of this.

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Good Morning, Big Bend.

After turning onto Old Maverick Road to Santa Elena Canyon, we had another 30 miles of dodging road runners, rabbits, and jack rabbits as they headed back into the grass and brush.

When we arrived, it was already crowded (for Big Bend). In fact, the only times I’ve seen so many people in the park in one place was either at Panther Junction or the Basin.

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Facing Mexico at Santa Elena Canyon.

Paw prints in the sand.

Paw prints in the sand.

As walked towards the canyon, a gentleman told me that if I wanted to go into the canyon, I’d have to get my feet wet. I knew I’d have to, I just didn’t know how much.

My first glimpse of the canyon.

My first glimpse of the canyon.

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In the water. Steve is just ahead, Nephew is nowhere to be seen.

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I always find it amazing to think about how many millions of years it took the water to cut this canyon out.

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Just before stepping onto dry land.

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Indulgence filtering.

On shore.

On shore.

Now, for the climb. At least part of it has stairs.

The climb begins

The climb begins

After staying with me through the first set of photos, Steve decided to try to catch up to Nephew and leave me to my pokey self.

Climbing...

Climbing…

Turning back and realizing I've gone further than I thought.

Turning back and realizing I haven’t gone as far as I thought.

Yup.

Yup.

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Over the hump.

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I caught up with the men. Nephew was once again throwing rocks into the river.

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They scootched on ahead to an outcropping and found a better rock-throwing vantage point. No. There wasn’t anyone in the river.

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Looking at Mexico.

Looking back into the park

Looking back into the park

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There he is.

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Fossils. Reminding us that this whole area used to be under water.

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Candelilla on the trail.

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Ocotillo in the canyon.

Steve and I came across a group who looked familiar. It turned out it was the same family who shared Boquillas Canyon with us the day before. We had a lovely chat. We asked if they had gone to Boquillas, but they said no one had brought their passports so that was out. We told them what to expect when they do get a chance to go. I can’t recall what else they were doing on the trip. Lovely people.

We eventually made it to the end of the trail. It basically ends at the edge of the river as you head back down into the canyon.

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Nephew resting in the shade at the end of the trail.

There were several other people resting at the end of the trail.  We all heard echoes coming from further down the canyon. We were wondering how they got down there and came to the conclusion they either walked down the river hugging the cliff face or rowed down in canoes or kayaks.

Me being me, I decided to take a dip into the water and see how far I could go. Not very without it getting very slippery and the mud trying to suck the boots off my feet. I got back on shore just long enough to grab my camera and very carefully wade back in.

Steve dipped a toe in but elected to stay on shore. I think he was waiting to see if I’d fall in. Nephew waded into the water with me briefly.

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At the end of the trail.

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The American cliff face.

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Looking at Mexico.

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Looking back down the canyon.

Nephew started back almost as soon as we stepped back on shore and completely ignoring me when I told him to stay where I could see him. Steve stayed with me while I reorganized and we walked back together.

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Starting back.

As we walked and chatted, Steve & I decided this was our favorite trail so far. Third time was really the charm.

In the meantime, we lost Nephew. We called for him; no answer. I kept thinking that if anything happened to him that my sister would kill me. Steve calmly told me that he was fine, there was only one trail so he couldn’t get lost; basically, there was only one way for him to go. Instinctively, I knew he was right. Emotionally, I was concerned. I mean, if he’d fallen off the cliff, we definitely would’ve heard something.

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Heading back. This is also about the time I realized we lost Nephew.

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Lovely view. Still looking for Nephew.

We came across two men coming the opposite direction. We asked if they’d seen a teenager in a lime green shirt. They said yes; they’d passed him on the trail. I was relived but still aggravated. At least I knew he hadn’t fallen into the river off the cliff. Aggravated that he was so far ahead.

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So, we get to what is essentially the highest point on the trail and look down. We see Nephew crossing the river.

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Again, this brings to mind the artificiality of borders.

We finally get to the beginning of the trail again and dip back into the water and join Nephew on his next Mexico excursion. I will say here that walking around in the water felt really great.

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Nephew in Mexico. Again.

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In the middle of the river

Nephew wanted me to help him with an experiment. He pulled out the plastic cover for his Awesome Hat and put it on. Then, he wanted me to walk up a little ways on the mini-rapids, place the hat, brim up, in the water and see of the cover would do its job. I did; it flipped over. The experiment was partially successful. The covered part of Awesome Hat stayed dry; when it flipped over, it, of course, got wet.

I was just glad he caught the damn thing. He would’ve been upset if he lost Awesome Hat.

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Where the experiment was performed.

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Husband Steve. Fearless Explorer.

We finished at Santa Elena. I was glad we did because a large party of bros were about to paddle down the canyon.

Steve & I had toyed with the idea of taking Nephew to Burro Mesa. However, by the time we were done at Santa Elena combined with Friday, we were whipped and Steve was feeling a little overheated. We decided to just slowly make our way out of the park, stop occasionally to take photographs, and head back to Alpine for our final night.

Since I was the one doing the driving, I got to stop the behemoth any time I wanted.

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I had to get my Ocotillo fix.

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I’m not sure why, but I love Ocotillo. Especially when they’ve bloomed out. We were a little late for the blooms, sadly.

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Spiny Fruited Prickly Pear.

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Strawberry Pitaya

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Trap Mountain

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Looking over the desert

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Mule Ear Peaks via telephoto lens

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Mule Ear Peaks via standard lens.

Driving down Ross Maxwell Scenic Road, we came across Sam Nail Ranch. We’d never seen it before, so we stopped. It was a short, flat, easy trail with a lot more to see than any of us anticipated.

I’ve never seen so much prickly pear in one place. Ever.

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This is just inside the entrance to the trail.

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Sam Nail owned this ranch from 1909-1946. Since then, it’s been taken back over by nature. In a really huge way.

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I wish I’d seen this when it was in bloom.

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Walking the trail.

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The Chisos in the distance.

One of these days, a really good wind is going to blow this over.

One of these days, a really good wind is going to blow this over.

I was honestly fascinated at the type of person who would try to ranch in a place known for frequent droughts, isolation, and rough terrain. One would have to be a tough, hearty soul.

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Walking down the trail towards the back of the ranch, it suddenly became almost forest-like. I don’t know if some of these trees are native to Big Bend, but they seem to have done well.

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I read somewhere this windmill still pumps water. I didn’t check.

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More quite possibly non-native trees mixed in with the Mesquite.

I'm not sure if this was the old ranch house or a barn. Looking at the foundation, such as it was, it was very small.

I’m not sure if this was the old ranch house or a barn. Looking at the foundation, such as it was, it was very small.

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Final look around the ranch as we went on our way.

And, after this final stop, I starting driving back to Alpine.

Goodbye, Big Bend. Until next time.

Goodbye, Big Bend. Until next time.

Going back up the road to Marathon, as anyone who’s driven 385 knows, there’s a Boarder Patrol Inspection Station about 30 miles in. I know he was joking, but Nephew said we should just speed on through, flash our high beams, or just act suspiciously so we can see what happens.

I had two thoughts on this: 1. None of those suggestions were going to fly; 2. Pretty interesting talk from someone who wants to go into law enforcement.

After the inspection, we discussed lunch options. Nephew said he wasn’t hungry, but Steve & I wanted something. Nothing big, just something. Since, seemingly, the only restaurant in town that was open was at the Gage (and we weren’t going there), we stopped at the French Grocer.

The French Grocer. A good, solid general store.

The French Grocer. A good, solid general store.

Steve & I weren’t that hungry. We were in the mood for more of a snack and drinks. We split a Turkey & Cheese Sandwich (made on premises) and chips. Nephew, for someone claiming he wasn’t hungry, ate about half the bag of chips himself.

They were very generous with the iceberg.

They were very generous with the iceberg.

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There always seem to be birds nesting in the eaves.

We again came through some rain on our way back to Alpine. Very heavy rain. As I was driving through it, I thought, wow, I’ve always wanted to see a storm in Big Bend; I’m an idiot.

We checked back into the Antelope Lodge for our final night in the same rooms we had on night one. We had just managed to unpack the behemoth and get into our rooms before the rain followed us into Alpine. This time, hail was included. Plus, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees within 15 minutes.

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Here it comes

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Hail. At this point, Steve made me close the door.

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I stepped out anyway and took another look.

While we were waiting for things to clear up, Steve heard from our friend Stewart Ramser. Stewart is the tourism director for Alpine as well as publisher of Texas Music magazine, among other things. He was in town getting ready for the Big Bend Music Festival in July and who knows what else. Stewart’s a busy man.

We had planned to meet Stewart at the Alpine Cowboys baseball game Saturday night, but the rain cancelled those plans. So, it was decided we would have dinner at one of Stewart’s favorite places in town – La Casita. A locals joint.

We were all disappointed about the game, but dinner sounded promising.

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La Casita

We met Stewart at the restaurant. He had posters in hand that he wanted to post on the wall. After ordering dinner, he tried with scotch tape. They all stayed up for about 5 minutes. I think he finally managed to hang the posters after borrowing some pins from the restaurant management.

Dinner was excellent, by the way. As it usually is when you find a place off the beaten path.  In my experience, locals places are, as a rule, better than anything where tourists generally congregate.

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Nephew’s Dinner: Beef Enchiladas

The beef enchiladas had ground beef. I don’t know why I was surprised. It’s certainly less expensive and easy to prepare. I’m also guessing Nephew enjoyed it; he finished his plate.

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Stewart and I ordered the same thing: Chicken Enchiladas with double rice

I really liked these. The chicken was well seasoned and the verde sauce was different from anything else I’d had before.  It was almost creamy as opposed to salsa-like. It was also a milder flavor than I’m used to; not so tart or spicy.

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Steve’s dinner: Deluxe Campechanas

Steve was all set to order the beef enchiladas until he saw this dish float by. The guacamole intrigued him. To me, it looked basically like a huge plate of glorified nachos.  I tried a couple of bites; it was very good. But, it was one of those meals you eat where it never seems like you make any sort of headway. He didn’t finish it. But he did give it the old college try.

After parting company with Stewart (it was great to see him), it was still relatively early. Since the ball game was out, the three of us took a drive to Marfa.

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Looking down the main street at the Presidio County courthouse. The belfry would’ve been a cool place to go if the courthouse had been open.

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The Chinati Foundation grounds. I like the landscaping, but minimalist art simply bores me.

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Steve wanted a photo of this. Pointless. Simply pointless.

We wandered around the center of town for a while and wondering what the hell happened to the radio station, book store and the covered space by the railroad tracks. Eventually, we made it down to Planet Marfa to listen to some music and have a beer (or, a Coke in Nephew’s case).

Planet Marfa is a nice, tree-lined partially open-air space where you can just hang out and listen to some music. They have a fairly neat teepee set up with a sitting area sunk down into the floor (you have to take some stairs to go down). They have an “upstairs” up one of the trees and tables to sit around. They also have a fairly limited bar food menu.

At Planet Marfa

At Planet Marfa.  We left not long after they put the lamps on the table. The petroleum smell gave me a headache.

Marfa Sunset

Marfa Sunset

Steve, Nephew, and I chatted for a while about our plans for Sunday and just hung out. After the rain came through, it cooled everything down and cleared the air, so it was a very pleasant night.  We didn’t stay out late, though. We were all tired and knew we had a long day ahead of travel back to Austin.

So, back to Alpine and bed.

 

Day 4 – June 14, Sunday

 

None of us were in any hurry to get up and moving. But, we finally managed to conjure ourselves up, shower, and pack the behemoth. Then, I knocked on Nephew’s door. No answer. Again. No answer. After the third knock, I heard a snarky “I heard you the first time.” I answered with an equally snarky “Then you need to say something”.  Turned out he was up several hours before and fell back to sleep. So, I was apparently waking him up again.

We headed to Magoo’s Place for Breakfast. Steve & I ate there last year with my parents when they met us in Alpine. Honestly, I thought the restaurant had been open for decades. It’s been open 9 years. It’s certainly popular with locals and, I’m sure, tourists alike.

The Huevos Rancheros are some of the best I’ve ever had. Beans, excellent; eggs, cooked perfectly. Ranchero Sauce, just the right amount of spice. One drawback – they never seem to give you enough tortillas.

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Steve & Nephew’s Breakfast: Huevos Rancheros with scrambled eggs

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My breakfast: Huevos Rancheros with sunny-side up eggs. And, yes. I know what this looks like.

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Magoos!

After leaving Alpine, we drove the long way home via Del Rio. We had a crazy idea that we’d cross into Cuidad Acuña for a couple of hours.

But first, a quick stop in Langtry to get out of the car and go see the Judge Roy Bean Visitors Center.  Steve & I had been here before, but we wanted to take Nephew; Roy Bean being a “lawman” and all.

For a place so remote, the visitors center is really nice.  The buildings have been lovingly restored and maintained and the story of Roy Bean, while no doubt sanitized for your protection, has been preserved via electronic diorama.  There is also an amazing cactus garden, if you are so inclined to visit. I had seen enough cactus, so I opted out this trip.

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Sunflowers outside Sanderson

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The original Jersey Lilly Saloon.

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It certainly doesn’t look like saloons in the movies.

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Indulgence filtering. Making it look old-timey.

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The old billiard room.

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One of the table legs.

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The Jersey Lilly. Bean would hold trials of the front porch.

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Looking through Judge Bean’s House.

A long view of the Langtry Opera House. Roy Bean's home.

A long view of the Langtry Opera House. Roy Bean’s home.

After we finished at the visitors center, we decided to take Nephew to the over look above the Pecos River. Steve & I stumbled on to it last year and were floored by the sheer size.

Nephew seemed impressed.

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The river is 900 miles long and has been described as being up to 100 feet wide in some places. Crossing was a dicey prospect at best. This bridge wasn’t completed until the 1950’s.

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Nephew taking it all in.

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Looking over the Trans-Pecos.

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The river wasn’t as high as I’d thought it would be. We could definitely see vegetation.

After saving a couple of centipedes from the asphalt and the possibility of being run over by the behemoth, we drove to Del Rio. Our plan was to cross into Cuidad Acuña, walk around, have lunch, shop, cross back, and drive home.

Now, I remember when there was a place to park on the American side and walk across the bridge into Acuña, just like in Laredo. However, that is no longer an option. If you don’t want to take your car, you have to park at a taxi service and they will take you across. Otherwise, you’ll have to take your car over. Since we had a rental, we couldn’t take it over even if we wanted to; we didn’t. Steve didn’t want to use a taxi service, either. So, the trip to Acuña was off.

At least there was a convenient sign stating “Final Turnaround. This is your last chance before you are in Mexico.” Or, something like that.

So, we turned around. Steve stopped at a gas station and, while he was filling up, I scouted Yelp for restaurants. We ended up at El Patio Mexican Buffet.

I haven’t been to a buffet restaurant in years. It was fun. The food was average, but it was fun.  I honestly can’t remember what Steve or I ate. Nephew, on the other hand, made himself a huge taco-burrito hybrid with beans, meat, rice, queso, and a lot of sour cream.

Nephew contemplating his buffet options.

Nephew contemplating his buffet options.

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There was definitely variety

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I liked the fact they had Menudo on the buffet line. I didn’t try any.

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Salsa and Queso Bar.

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I really should’ve eaten a salad.

As I was paying, I asked the lady behind the counter about the mystery pedestrian bridge to Acuña. She told me what I already knew, there was no longer a pedestrian bridge. I was hoping she’d give me a different answer.

So, the three of us decided it was simply time to drive back to Austin. After driving through more rain, San Antonio, and the clogged arteries of the Austin freeway system, we made it home around 6:30pm. My sister was waiting for us when we arrived. She was taking Nephew to his college orientation early the next morning, so she decided to come the night before.

 

It was a great trip. I’ll miss those summers with Nephew.

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Luckily, we have Younger Nephew for 3 more years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2nd Annual Viva Big Bend Food Festival: Final Dispatch 0

Posted on May 16, 2014 by Sahar

Finally. The last installment.  It’s admittedly a little later than I intended; but we’re now reaching the finish.

*****************

Day 4 – Saturday

Steve & I woke up with – surprisingly – no hangovers.  Must have been the rich food.

Alpine's Mural in a Weekend.  They completed this the last weekend of July 2013.

Alpine’s Mural in a Weekend. They completed this the last weekend of July 2013.  It was inspired by Jesus Helguera’s “Poco a Poquito”.

 

We soon met my parents to take a look at the Alpine Farmers Market.  It’s a rather small market.  Not much in the way of fresh produce, but there were plenty of homemade goods like preserves, goat cheese, gluten-free baked goods, and pickles.

Alpine train station

Alpine train station

At the farmers market

At the farmers market

Fresh eggs. We didn't buy any.

Fresh eggs. We didn’t buy any.

This gentleman and his granddaughters were selling all kinds of goat milk products.  I bought 2 types of chèvre. It was great.

This gentleman and his granddaughters were selling all kinds of goat milk products. I bought 2 types of chèvre. It was great.

Chocolate goat milk ice cream. It had the texture of ice milk.

Chocolate goat milk ice cream. It had the texture of ice milk.

These folks had, oh, I don't know, about 10 flavors of preserves an chutneys.  I bought the last cranberry chutney. I'm still savoring it.

These folks had, oh, I don’t know, at least 10-12 flavors of preserves and chutneys. I bought the last cranberry chutney. I’m still savoring it.

We spent about an hour at the market and then took a walk through town.  On the other side of the tracks, so to speak.

Not sure what this used to be. Almost looks like a market.

Not sure what this used to be. Almost looks like a market.

The Three Amigos. And Steve.

The Three Amigos. And Steve.

Someone's rose bush.

Someone’s rose bush.

Old buildings in old Alpine.

Old buildings in old Alpine.

Blooming cactus. I think this is a Barrel Cactus.

Blooming cactus. I think this is a Barrel Cactus.

When we went back across the tracks, Mom and I took a detour into a jewelry store that I frequent every time I go to Alpine, La Azteca Jewelry.  The couple that own the store design their own jewelry into one-of-a-kind pieces.  Beautiful stuff.  And very reasonably priced.  Mom fell in love with the store and bought herself a new ring. I bought two.

After this, we went our separate ways for a few hours.  Steve and I headed to the Big Bend Brewing Company (http://bigbendbrewing.com) for their big barbecue and music party.

Big Bend Brewing Company. Since 2012. Damn good beer.

Big Bend Brewing Company. Since 2012. Damn good beer.

I offered to work the gate for Stewart.  Steve, Mom, and Dad went on in to enjoy the food, beer, and music by the Doodlin’ Hogwallops (http://www.piggigger.com).  Steve was kind enough to bring me a plate of barbecue, boudin, and potato salad.  The lady who helped me at the gate, Mary, was a volunteer for one of my classes last year.  I was happy to see her again.  She lives in Dripping Springs and has family near Fort Davis.  So, she comes out often.  She sure seems to know a lot of people.

Lines for the food & beer.

Lines for the food & beer.

The Doodlin' Hogwallops

The Doodlin’ Hogwallops

Enjoying the music and the food.

Mom & Dad enjoying the music, beer, and the food.

It was, from what I observed, the biggest event of the festival.  I felt great for not just the brewery, but Stewart, too.  It, to me anyway, was a very positive sign that  the festival is becoming successful and can be even bigger next year.

Cowboy on tank.

Cowboy on tank.

By about 3pm, traffic into the brewery was had slowed considerably (the event was to end at 4), so Stewart let me leave.  Mom, Dad, and Steve were off doing their own things – Dad went back to his hotel to rest; Mom and Steve to a Tito’s Vodka Infusion Class.  I took advantage of the alone time to go back to my hotel and take a quick nap.  Glorious.

Honeysuckle bush in our courtyard. It smelled heavenly.

Honeysuckle bush in our courtyard. It smelled heavenly.

I couldn't tell what flower this was, but it's lovely.

I couldn’t tell what flower this was, but it’s lovely.

Later that evening, we went to our last planned even of the festival – Dinner at the Cow Dog.  I’ve written about Cow Dog before in one of my previous Big Bend posts, but, just in case you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that those are quite honestly the best hot dogs I’ve ever had.  And, with Hogan and Moss (https://www.facebook.com/Jonhoganband) providing the music, it was a wonderful ending to a fun festival.

Cow Dog!

Cow Dog!

The German: Sausage, Saurkraut, Caraway Seeeds, Mustard

The German: Bacon, Sauerkraut, Caraway Seeds, Mustard

The El Pastor: Red Onion, Pineapple, Cilantro Pesto, Lime Mayo.

The El Pastor: Red Onion, Pineapple, Cilantro Pesto, Lime Mayo.

We left the party early to head out to the McDonald Observatory for the Star Party (http://mcdonaldobservatory.org).  Steve, Dad, and I had attended a Star Party before and the night was perfect – clear with no moon.  Unfortunately, the night we went with Mom (who’d never been to the observatory), it was overcast.  Once we arrived at the observatory, there was a bit of touch-and-go as to what they were going to do if the weather didn’t clear.  Apparently, they do have contingency plans for just these sorts of events.

Sunset at the Observatory. What I could see, anyway.

Sunset at the Observatory. What I could see, anyway.

One of the telecopes at the observatory the public is allowed to look through during the star parties.

One of the telescopes at the observatory the public is allowed to look through during the star parties. (This is a photo from 2012.)

When it was time for the Star Party to begin, we were informed that it was too overcast to go to the amphitheater  Instead, the employees directed us to the indoor theater to talk to us about what we would be seeing that night if it was clear.  Mom’s and my favorite part was when they displayed pictures from the Hubble Telescope on screen.  We later agreed that we could’ve sat there and just looked at more of those all night.

The theater where we had our opening lecture.

The theater where we had our opening lecture.

Different ways people would navigate by, and study, the stars.

Different ways people would navigate by the stars.

About 30 minutes later, it was announced that it was just clear enough to go outside and hopefully catch some of the night sky.  We all got to see Jupiter.  Mom, Dad, and Steve got to see the moon.  I opted for the telescope pointed at Mars.  However, by the time I got to that telescope, it had clouded over again.  Bummer.  We left not long afterwards.  Despite the disappointing night sky, we all had a good time.

Back to Alpine.  Then, to sleep.

 

Day 5 – Sunday

With the festival officially over, it was time to head back to Austin.  However, breakfast with my parents before they left for home was in order.

Somewhere in his travels around town, Dad saw a sign for Magoos.  A Tex-Mex restaurant that served Menudo.  Well, there was no way he was going to pass that up.

Dad's Menudo. It actually wasn't too unpleasant.

Dad’s Menudo. It actually wasn’t too unpleasant.

In case you don’t know what Menudo is, I’ll tell you.  It’s a rather hearty soup made with a base of chiles, broth, and beef tripe. Sometimes hominy is also added.  You garnish the soup with onion, dried oregano, and either lemon or lime.  It’s believed to be a traditional hangover cure in Mexico.  If the tripe is cleaned properly, the soup has a rather mild and slightly gamey flavor. If the tripe isn’t cleaned properly – yuk.

I did try some of Dad’s Menudo.  It was pretty good.  It didn’t taste dirty at all.  I don’t know if I would’ve eaten a whole bowl of it, though.

Mom, Steve, and I went a little more safe:  Huevos Rancheros.  They were excellent.

 

Mine - Sunny Side Up

Mine – Sunny Side Up

Mom's - Over Easy

Mom’s – Over Easy

Steve's - Scrambled

Steve’s – Scrambled

After breakfast and hugs good-bye, Mom & Dad headed back to north Texas while Steve & I headed back to our hotel to check out and head back to Austin.

As is our wont, we decided to take an alternate route back home as opposed to driving back on IH10.  We decided on US190 to US71.  It took us about 2 hours longer than the traditional route home, but we did get to drive through some towns that time forgot and see some new scenery.

At a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. We were switching drivers.

At a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. We were switching drivers.

At the middle-of-nowhere rest stop.

At the middle-of-nowhere rest stop.

At the middle-of-nowhere rest stop.

At the middle-of-nowhere rest stop.

Not everything out here is bucolic. Let me tell you, the gas fumes smelled awful.

Not everything out here is bucolic. Let me tell you, the gas fumes smelled awful. And lingered for miles.

While we were on US190, we passed through the towns of Girvin, McCamey Iraan, Sheffield, Ozona, El Dorado, Menard, Mason, and, finally, Llano.  Some of these towns were simply a crossroad while some were almost bustling metropolises.

Girvin, TX. This is literally the whole town.

Girvin, TX. This is literally the whole town.

Heading into Menard.

Heading into Menard.

While Steve was dozing in the passenger’s seat, I passed an old ruined fort.  I decided to turn around and check it out.  If, for no other reason than to stretch our legs.  It was Fort San Saba (Presidio de San Saba).

Fort San Angelo

Fort San Saba (Presidio de San Saba)

The original fort (presidio) was built in 1751 on the banks of the San Gabriel River.  In 1757, it was rebuilt on the banks of the San Saba River where the remains stand today.  Like many Spanish forts, it was a way to gain a foothold and hold onto conquered land, for protection, and to convert the native inhabitants to Catholicism.  The fort was abandoned after an attack by native tribes in 1772 and was basically left to the elements.  In 1936, the Texas Centennial Commission made attempts to restore the fort and, frankly, did a rather poor job of it.  Most of what they restored fell to ruin once again.  The Texas Historical Commission and the town of Menard both oversee the current restoration to see that it’s done carefully and properly.

One of the facades in what was known as the "VIP Area"

Some of the walls in what was known as the “VIP Area”

The San Saba River at the back of the fort.

The San Saba River at the back of the fort.

Prickly Pear along the front gate.

Prickly Pear along the front gate.

One we hit US71, we decided to stop at our favorite barbecue joint, Cooper’s.  For me, it’s the best.  Anywhere.

Of course, we way over bought and overindulged.  Brisket, Sausage, Pork Chops, Steak, Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Bacon-Jalapeno Mac & Cheese (a new item for them; in fact, I bought more for home), and Peach and Blackberry Cobblers.

Barbecue porn.

Barbecue porn.

What the hell, we figured.  We’ll just take it home.

Another hour driving.  And, finally, home.

Steve & I decided while it was lovely to be in our own house again and settling in with the cats, we already missed Big Bend.  It just has that kind of pull on us.

I mean, how can one resist this?

I mean, how can one resist this?

Or this?

Or this?

 

Just so you can get a little taste of the fun we had, here’s link to the official trailer of the Viva Big Bend Food Festival 2014 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRm-BIZThmc).  Yes, I’m in there.

 

Hope to see you all there in 2015!

 

 

 

2nd Annual Viva Big Bend Food Festival Daily Dispatch: Day 2 0

Posted on April 12, 2014 by Sahar

Thursday started a bit earlier than Wednesday.  Well, truth be told, much earlier.  Not only was it Park Day, but it was also moving day.

A little background.  When we arrived at the Holland on Wednesday, we found out that the room we were originally booked for (more specifically, a loft) wouldn’t be ready for us until Thursday.  So, we were put in a regular room for Wednesday night.  The hotel would move our things the next day; but, of course, we needed to be packed up.

Fine.  Although, I kinda felt bad for the person who had to move our stuff.  It was more than the usual suitcases.  We also had a cooler and bins full of food and accoutrements needed for my class at the Holland on Friday.

After cleaning up and packing, Steve & I went to grab a quick breakfast from the hotel spread.  It was the usual variety of pastries, cereal, and granola.  I will say, though, it was certainly a step above the average hotel breakfast fare.

 

Part of the Holland Hotel breakfast buffet. Steve said the bacon scones were grreat.

Part of the Holland Hotel breakfast buffet. Steve said the bacon scones were great.

And what's a hotel breakfast buffet without those cute little cereal boxes?

And what’s a hotel breakfast buffet without those cute little cereal boxes?

After breakfast, we went to pick up my parents at their hotel for another sojourn to Big Bend National Park.  Steve & I have been there, oh, I think, 10 times now. Dad, a couple of times.  Mom had never been, so we decided now would be as a good a time as any to take her.  Plus, it always seems to be just a little different every time we go.

But first, a quick stop in Marathon.  Mom had to go to the post office.

Taking random photos while waiting for Mom.

Taking random photos while waiting for Mom.

Task completed, we headed down the road to the park. For those of you who haven’t been out here before, nothing is close together.  The three largest towns out here – Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis – are all 30 minutes away from each other and the park itself is an hour from Marathon (or, as the locals call it, Marath’n).  If you factor in getting to the park headquarters (which is what the road signs measure), it’s almost 2 hours from Alpine.  But, the scenery makes the drive worth it.

Driving to the park.

Driving to the park.

If you leave early enough in the day, you will (hopefully) see the buzzards sitting on the fence posts with their wings spread warming themselves up.  They’re sinfully ugly and kinda gross birds, but they’re fun to observe.

I just caught this guy as he was flying away.

I just caught this guy as he was flying away.

If you want to take pictures of buzzards (or any carrion bird), you have to be careful.  If you startle them, their preferred method of defense is throwing up the contents of their stomach. And, since they eat already dead things, you can just imagine the smell.  Well, maybe you can’t.

Buzzards either circling breakfast or just riding the thermal waves.

Buzzards either circling breakfast or just riding the thermal waves.

On into the park.  We just hit the time between the wildflowers and the cactus blooms.  So, not much color foliage-wise, but still, as always, beautiful in its own desert way.

Chisos Mountains.

Chisos Mountains and the Chihuhuan Desert

Ocatillo in bloom.

Ocatillo in bloom.

Ocatillo bloom. Beautiful color.

Ocatillo bloom. Beautiful color.

Big sky.

Big sky.

Yucca in the desert.

Yucca in the desert.

i can only guess at the size of tarantula that's in this nest.

I can only guess at the size of tarantula that’s in this nest.

Looking up.

Looking up.

After the many stops requested by Dad & me so we could take photos, we finally made it to the park headquarters, Panther Junction.  So, we decided to eat lunch at the lodge in the park.  The Chisos Mountain Lodge.

Lunch was, in a word, dull. The food was edible but, like all places that cater to large, diverse crowds, boring.  The best part of the meal was the appetizer, Texas Toothpicks.  Basically, deep-fried onion and pickled jalapeño pieces.  They weren’t greasy and the dipping sauce – a kind of chili-mayonnaise thing – that wasn’t bad.

Texas Toothpicks.  The best part of our lunch. Good thing there were 4 of us eating.

Texas Toothpicks. The best part of our lunch. Good thing there were four of us eating.

Mom went for a BLT. She says it’s the only sandwich she eats at restaurants because it’s not too messy.  She said it was good.

Mom's BLT with fruit on the side.

Mom’s BLT with fruit on the side. Everything looked fresh.

Dad went for a burger.  He said it was dry.  The pattie definitely looked like it had been cooked immediately from its frozen state.

Dad's burger.

Dad’s burger.

Steve & I both opted for the fish tacos. Bland doesn’t even begin to describe the flavor. We liberally poured on the appetizer dipping sauce to help out. It did. Kinda. It also looked as if they tried to warm up the tortillas but waited too long to get them to the table, because by the time we got them, the tortillas were stiff and dry.

The rice and beans were good, though.

Fish Tacos. Meh.

Fish Tacos. Meh.

After lunch, we decided to take a short walk around the Basin.  We’ve made this walk before but never during the daylight hours.  So, it was nice to see the Window in its daytime glory.

The Window. The photo is nice, but seeing it in person is even better.

The Window. The photo is nice, but seeing it in person is even better.

The prickly pear budding out. We were just a few weeks too early to catch them in bloom.

The prickly pear budding out. We were just a few weeks too early to catch them in bloom.

Heading out.

Heading out.

At the south entrance.

At the south entrance.

We came in through the north entrance, as we always do, but decided to leave via the south entrance heading towards Terlingua. We wanted to stop at the General Store there and check out the ghost town.

Steve & I have been to Terlingua Ghost Town maybe 5 or 6 times at this point. Sadly, it becomes more and more dilapidated every time.  The ravages of time and humans have taken their toll.

Terlingua Ghost Town.

Terlingua Ghost Town.

Terlingua Ghost Town is in there somewhere.

Terlingua Ghost Town is in there somewhere.

Terlingua Ghost Town

Terlingua Ghost Town

We made a quick stop in the General Store for some t-shirts and Topo Chico. (For those of you who don’t know, Topo Chico is a Mexican carbonated mineral water.) Then, the 90-minute drive back to Alpine.

We dropped my parents off at their hotel and went back to ours to get the keys to our new room and clean up for the Viva Big Bend Food Festival opening night party.

Stewart had reserved a loft for Steve & me.  I needed it so I could prep for my class the next day without getting in the way of the kitchen staff at the hotel restaurant.  When we finally walked in, we were thrilled.  A nice large living area with a serviceable kitchenette and a huge bedroom area with a whirlpool tub and large bathroom.

Jackpot.

We cleaned up and headed towards the party at the Railroad Blues, a great music venue in Alpine.  The local telecom company was giving away free fajitas and coozies with magnets. Very handy.

Dinner. Perfect.

Dinner. Perfect.

The fajitas were very good. Most of the time, the skirt steak is so undercooked, the meat is chewy.  This time the meat was cooked through and was very tender. (Although, admittedly, I don’t know what cut of meat this was.) Plus, they didn’t overdress the fajitas.  Just grilled onions, peppers, and some excellent salsa. Steve got us both seconds. After my parents arrived, he went with Dad to get food and got himself a third one.

After conversing with my parents and Stewart, Steve & I went back to the hotel to begin prep for my class.  Mission accomplished, I went to bed.

 

Day 3… Coming up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2nd Annual Viva Big Bend Food Festival Daily Dispatch: Day 1 0

Posted on April 10, 2014 by Sahar

Yes. Husband Steve & I are out in the gloriousness that is Far West Texas. Again. Honestly, it’s one of those places where I look for any excuse to go.  Like New York.

I was invited back to teach and help out at the 2nd Annual Viva Big Bend Food Festival (http://www.vivabigbend.com/food_events.html) by its founder, Stewart Ramser.  I gladly said yes.  Stewart’s a great guy and I certainly hope I can play at least some small part in helping this festival succeed.

But first, Steve & I, along with my parents who met us out here, had a day and a half to entertain ourselves.

On our way out from Austin, Steve & I, as is our wont, stopped in Fredericksburg for some leg stretching, lunch, and gas for the car. (As an aside, since we are now down to one household car, we decided to rent one for this trip. It’s a behemoth that I’m terrified to drive.)

We stopped for lunch at a little bakery/deli on Main Street called Java Ranch.  Steve had a club sandwich while I had a BLT.  Simple sandwiches that you have to work really hard at to screw up.  The sandwiches were good, if serviceable. Nothing of note, really.

Steve's Club Sandwich.

Steve’s Club Sandwich.

My BLT

My BLT

After eating, grabbing a cookie for me, an iced latte for Steve, and filling up the car, we were on our way once again.

Something about this that chases the blue meanies away.

Something about this that chases the Blue Meanies away.

Sigh...

Sigh…

Breathe...

Breathe…

Steve & I finally made it to Alpine about 6:30.  We checked into our room at the beautiful Holland Hotel (http://thehollandhoteltexas.com), cleaned up, changed, and headed to pick up my parents at their hotel.  We were off to Marfa to dine at one of our favorite restaurants, Cochineal (http://cochinealmarfa.com).

Steve & I chose to take my parents to Cochineal because we both knew they, and especially my mom, would enjoy it.  Their food is exquisite (not a word I use lightly in reference to food), their wine list is excellent, and their cocktails are outstanding.  And the space? A quiet minimalism.

We started off with cocktails. Well, all of us except Dad.  He opted for Diet Coke.

Dad's Diet Coke.

Dad’s Diet Coke. His drink of choice.

Mom's Campari.  Do NOT try to pass off any imitations. She'll know.

Mom’s Campari. Do NOT try to pass off any imitations. She’ll know.

Steve's Gold Rush.

Steve’s Gold Rush. He said it was very bourbon-y. He drank it down, though.

My old standby. A White Russian. Honestly, it's my favorite.

My old standby. A White Russian. Honestly, it’s my favorite.

Next came the bread.  It tasted like a sourdough with a very dark hearty crust and a soft crumb.  It was served with a soft butter sprinkled with black sea salt. Lovely.

Bread and butter. The butter was soft. Those kinds of details count.

Bread and butter. The butter was soft. Those kinds of details count.

Next came the appetizers; or, as listed on the menu, small plates.  When they came to the table, my family being my family, we finished them all in less than 10 minutes.  By no means a record.

Crispy Duck with Citrus. The skin wasn't as crispy as I would have liked and the duck was a bit more done than I prefer. However, overall it was a very good effort.

Crispy Duck with Citrus. The skin wasn’t as crispy as I would have liked and the duck was a bit more done than I prefer. However, overall it had great flavors and was a very good effort.

Scalloped Oysters.  This was a kind of throwback dish.  They were baked in a cream sauce with crakers on top. The oysters weren't overcooked and the topping was wonderful. A win all around.

Scalloped Oysters. This was a kind of throwback dish. They were baked in a cream sauce with crackers on top. The oysters weren’t overcooked and the topping was wonderful. A win all around.

Vegetable Tempura.  Well, Cochineal's version, anyway. We were all excited about the red bell peppers and the fact that it wasn't the usual heavy tempura batter.  Mom & Dad especially liked the pickled onions.

Vegetable Tempura. Well, Cochineal’s version, anyway. We were all excited about the red bell peppers and the fact that it wasn’t the usual heavy tempura batter. Mom & Dad especially liked the pickled onions.

After this repast, it was on to the main entrees. Everyone was very happy with their choices.

Mom & Steve's choice: Hangar Steak with Tomato Confit and Potato Puree.

Dad’s choice: Pork Tenderloin with a Herb Sauce with Crispy Crushed New Potatoes and Asparagus. I suspect the potatoes were purple new potatoes.

Mom & Steve's choice: Hangar Steak with Tomato Confit and Potato Puree.

Mom & Steve’s choice: Hangar Steak with Tomato Confit and Potato Puree.  Mom said her steak was cooked perfectly.  Steve just ate.

My choice:  Tiger Prawns with Sorrel Sauce and Confit Romanesco. I'm not sure what the vegetables were confit in, but I'm guessing clarified butter.  The garlic in the confit was almost the best part of the dish.  And, the prawns were perfectly grilled.

My choice: Tiger Prawns with Sorrel Sauce and Confit Romanesco. I’m not sure what the vegetables were confire in, but I’m guessing clarified butter. The garlic in the confit was almost the best part of the dish. And, the prawns were perfectly grilled.

Dessert was a bit limited.  The one item Mom wanted, the Ginger Pot du Creme, was apparently an aspirational dessert and, according to our server, wasn’t good enough to actually serve to customers.  The other dessert, Creme Brûlée, was sold out.  So, that left Carrot Cake and Chocolate Souffle with a Molten Center.  You can guess which one we went with.

That's right. The Chocolate Souffle.

That’s right. The Chocolate Souffle.

The molten center. As far as I'm concerned, a molten center is just an underdone souffle.  It had great flavor, but I would have preferred a fully cooked souffle.

The molten center. As far as I’m concerned, a molten center is just an underdone souffle. It had great flavor and the crust had a slightly crispy chewiness that I liked, but I would have preferred a fully cooked souffle.

Overall, our meal was wonderful.  This was the second time Steve & I had been to Cochineal and both times have been a delight.  It’s definitely a destination restaurant; no doubt about that.  Even if you lived in the area, this would be a special occasion place.

Mom pointed out that not only was it an excellent meal, but the portions were reasonable.  She said (and I agree with this) that she would rather pay more for a good meal she can actually finish than pay less for a meal where she either stuffed herself or couldn’t finish.

After a walk around a closed and rolled-up-for-the-night-Marfa, we drove back to Alpine, dropped my parents off at their hotel, went back to ours and promptly fell asleep.

Because we knew Thursday was park day.

 

Next up… Day 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jamaican Odyssey, Part 2 2

Posted on February 25, 2014 by Sahar

Moving on…

The next 2 days of the trip were the days Steve & I were looking forward to the most.  We were finally leaving the resort to see something of the “Real Jamaica”.

Day 3  January 31, Friday

Steve & I started off the day quite excited of what we were about to experience. But first, a small breakfast.

We decided to go with room service one last time and just get a fruit plate and juice.

Day 3 breakfast. How fruit can be so mediocre on an island filled with amazing indigenous produce is amazing to me.

Day 3 breakfast. How fruit can be so mediocre on an island filled with amazing indigenous produce is unfathomable to me.

Sigh… At least the pineapple was edible.

After this disappointment, we headed downstairs to wait for our guide.  We didn’t have to wait long.

I will say that Steve hit the jackpot in our tour guide, the wonderful Lynda Lee Burks.  She is an American ex-pat who has lived in Jamaica full time for most of the last 20 years.  She has her own tour company that focuses on specialized tours, Jamaica Tour Society (http://www.jamaicatoursociety.com).  She was a wonderful guide and companion for the next two days.  I love her.

Steve & I wanted to go into Montego Bay to visit the produce market and look for some music.  We also wanted to try the national dish of Jamaica, Ackee and Saltfish.  Lynda Lee said she rarely gets requests to go into the city, so she was happy to take us.

The market was a maze of sensory experiences.  They sell everything there from tobacco to clothes to kitchenware to produce.  I’m not sure of the age of the market, but considering the importance of the city as a port, the market has likely survived in one form or another for at least 350 years.  However, the building we saw along with the current fixtures was probably built in the early- to mid-twentieth century.

Some of the bounty at the Montego Bay market.

Some of the bounty at the Montego Bay Market.

As we began walking around the market, it was clear to me that this is a country that takes a lot of pride in its food.  While some of the produce was imported (we saw huge bags of onions, carrots, and potatoes), most of it was native grown.

Lynda Lee also gave me some advice as we began walking around: Always ask to take someone’s photo.  If you don’t, if seen as an invasion of privacy and/or they think you’re a journalist looking to make money off of them.  Since I’m not one who would naturally walk up to random strangers and ask to take their photos, I found the easiest way to approach this is to buy something from the stand. I figured the vendors would be much more receptive.  Luckily, they were.

Pumpkin and Soursop. I'd never heard of saoursop before this. It was quite the revelation.

Pumpkin and Soursop. I’d never heard of soursop before this. It was quite the revelation. It is sour in its underripe state and gets sweeter as it ripens.

Otaheiti Apples. These are actually indigenous to the Pacific Islands. They grow well in tropical climates, and are grown and extremely popular in Jamaica.

Otaheiti Apples. These are actually indigenous to the Pacific Islands. They grow well in tropical climates, and are grown and extremely popular in Jamaica.

Papayas, known as Pawpaw in Jamaica.

Papayas, known as Pawpaw in Jamaica.

As we moved through the market, we did run across a stand that had the components of one of the national dish of Jamaica: Ackee.  It has a mild, creamy flavor and texture that works well with the very salty fish in the dish.

Ackee. These are indigenous to west Africa and were probably brought to Jamaica abord slave ships.

Ackee. These are indigenous to west Africa and were probably brought to Jamaica aboard slave ships.  Parts of the fruit are toxic: so, if prepared improperly or eaten underripe, it can lead to severe hypoglycemia.

Bananas still on the stalk.

Bananas still on the stalk.

After walking around a bit more, we all decided we were hungry enough to stop by one of Lynda Lee’s favorite cook shops in the market and finally get our Ackee & Saltfish.

And, here are the ladies who made us this culinary delight.  Esther and Janet.

Ester and Janet. They introduced Steve & I to Ackee & Saltfish. And, they were absolutely lovely.

Esther and Janet. They introduced Steve & me to Ackee & Saltfish. They were absolutely sweet and lovely.

Their tiny cook shop in the market seems to be quite popular. It was actually one of the first places we stopped when we got into the market.  After Lynda Lee chatted with them for a few minutes (she knows them well; they usually have roasted breadfruit, one of Lynda Lee’s favorites, in season), Janet agreed to set aside some of the Ackee & Saltfish for us when we came back by.  They apparently sell out quickly.

To prepare the recipe, salt cod is soaked and boiled (although Janet used mackerel that morning), then sautéed with the cleaned ackee, onions, habanero (Scotch Bonnet) peppers, tomatoes, and black pepper and allspice (pimento). It  is usually served as breakfast with breadfruit (when it’s in season), tomatoes, fried or boiled dumplings, boiled yams, and fried plantain or boiled green bananas.

All I can say is: Wow.

Our real breakast on Friday. And, finally, a taste of the real Jamaica.

Our real breakfast on Friday. And, finally, a taste of the real Jamaica.

Ackee & Saltfish. Absolutely delicious.

Ackee & Saltfish. Absolutely delicious. Typically, it’s made with salt cod. That morning, Janet made it with mackerel. I’ve never had mackerel, so I had two new food experiences in one.

The full breakfast was Ackee & Saltfish, boiled yams, sweet potato, tomatoes, fried dumplings, and boiled bananas.

Like many cuisines in developing nations, starch figures pretty prominently in Jamaican cuisine.  It’s a cheap, generally nutritious, and filling way to receive one’s sustenance.  Not that I’m opposed to starch.

After we ate breakfast, we moved next door so Steve could speak with a gentleman named Bunny so he could buy some old-school Jamaican music.

Bunny's shop.

Bunny’s shop. Or, it may have just been a sign that Steve liked.

Steve and Bunny listening to music. I think Steve bought 5 cd's.

Steve and Bunny listening to music. I think Steve bought 5 cd’s.

While Lynda Lee and I were waiting for Steve to finish up with Bunny, we watch a gentleman dance to the old-school dub that was coming out of the speakers.  But, I didn’t want to pay him for taking his photo (which can happen). So, I just have the memory.

After Steve bought his cd’s, we wandered around a bit more as we worked our way out of the market.

Pineapples. These were a smaller variety than we're used to seeing here.

Pineapples. These were a smaller variety than we’re used to seeing here.

This gentleman was an artist in pineapple carving. I think he rather enjoyed having his picture taken.

This gentleman was an artist in pineapple carving. I think he rather enjoyed having his picture taken.

Yams. These and other starches like potatoes and cassava are quite prominent are Jamaican cuisine.

Yams. These and other starches like potatoes and cassava are quite prominent in Jamaican cuisine.

Scotch Bonnet Peppers. Otherwise known here as Habaneros.

Scotch Bonnet Peppers. Otherwise known here as Habaneros.

Sorrel flowers.  They are generally used to make tea and are a traditional rememdy to clear up respiratory inflammation.

Sorrel flowers. They are generally used to make tea and are a traditional remedy to clear up respiratory inflammation.

Nutmeg with the mace still on.  The redder the mace, the fresher the nut. I bought some and nver have to but nutmeg or mace ever again.

Nutmeg with the mace still on. The redder the mace, the fresher the nut. I bought some and never have to buy nutmeg or mace ever again.

Bags of spices.

Bags of spices.

Various flavorings, traditonal remedies, molasses, and chocolate.

Various flavorings, traditional remedies, molasses, and chocolate.

Another of the wonderful people in the market. I bought some Jamaican chocolate from her.

Another of the wonderful people in the market.

One of the old-school vendor stands.  You could conceiveably have 6 vendors at one stand.

One of the old-school vendor stands. You could conceivably have 6 vendors at one stand.

As we left the market, I needed to change some money, so Lynda Lee took us over to Andy’s Market.  It is directly across from the produce market and gets quite the trade in money exchange and simply making change.  It looks like a dry goods store, but the money exchange takes place in a rather strange way (to us anyway). High above the floor is a room where someone will reach down while you reach up with your cash, they will take it, count it, and give you the exchange. It’s all very efficient.  Given the crime rate in Jamaica, it makes sense to have the extra cash as difficult to get to as possible.

Lynda Lee told me that all (or most) of the markets (dry goods and grocery stores) in Jamaica are owned by Chinese.  After emancipation in 1838, Chinese were brought over as indentured servants.  Over the years, after the practice was ended in 1920, the Chinese went into the mercantile business.  Their descendants and more recent immigrants have become very successful and have, of course, become a very important part of the Jamaican economy.

After this, we drove to downtown Montego Bay. Steve was on a mission to find Empire Records.

Downtown Montego Bay. It still has some elements of Georgian archetecture.

Downtown Montego Bay. It still has some elements of Georgian architecture.

There was this gem.

There was this gem. It was called “The Cage”.

The short history behind "The Cage".

The short history behind “The Cage”.

Downtown Montego Bay looking from Sam Sharpe Square.

Downtown Montego Bay looking from Sam Sharpe Square.

Statues of Sam Sharpe and 4 of his followers.

Statues of Sam Sharpe and 4 of his followers.

Sam Sharpe was a slave who was the leader of the Jamaican Baptist War of 1832.  He was unusually, for the times, well educated and his fellow slaves looked to and respected.  He became a leader and deacon of his church who preached about the evils of slavery. While he initially preached peaceful resistance to slavery, in December 1831, the resistance turned violent.  Plantation owners retaliated against the slaves and, in turn, the slaves burned the crops.  Hundreds of slaves and 14 whites were killed in the ensuing violence.  Within a few weeks, the rebellion was put down and the leaders of the resistance, including Sharpe, were captured and hung.   Sharpe is considered a Jamaican hero and along with the statue in Montego Bay, he is also on the Jamaican $50 bill.

While we went on the quest to find this seemingly phantom record store, we were able to get a good look around the city.  It is a mix of Georgian and somewhat modern architecture painted in bright Caribbean colors.  Everyone seemed to have a purpose and a destination to get to, even if there wasn’t one.  It’s also a very young country; Lynda Lee told me the average age is under 30.  Everyone seems to have a dignity that one simply doesn’t see in many places.  And, everyone we spoke to was simply so lovely and kind.

A perfect example of this observation was this man: The Gospel Man.

The Gospel Man. Note his cart.  All hand arts in Jamaica have the wheel on the end to help steer.  This is what made the Jamaicans believe they could field a bobsled team.

The Gospel Man. He was blasting the sweet sounds of old-school gospel.  Steve bought some music from him, too.

Note his cart. All hand carts in Jamaica have the wheel on the end to help steer. This is what made the Jamaicans believe they could field a bobsled team.

After a bit more searching and general confusion about its exact location, we finally found the fabled Empire Records.    It was basically stacks of vinyl in a lottery shop.

Steve searching through the stacks. He said they were pretty picked over.  After all the searching he only found one record he was looking for.

Steve searching through the stacks. He said they were pretty picked over. After all the searching he only found one record he was looking for.

Steve said that he could’ve gone all day just searching through the thousands of 45’s that were there (at one time the music means of choice in Jamaica).  But, since Lynda Lee and I were waiting for him, he decided against it.

After this, we decided despite the rather substantial breakfast, we were hungry again.  So, it was off to Tastee’s for Jamaican Meat Patties (apparently this is the place to go; it’s like the McDonalds of Jamaica – only better http://www.tasteejamaica.com).  They’re a direct descendant of the English pasty.

Authentic Jamaican Meat Patties. Delicious.

Authentic Jamaican Meat Patties. Delicious.  One was a traditional style while one also had cheese.

The filling  was ground meat, most often beef, but it can be filled with other meats or even seafood, in a sauce and spiced with pepper, allspice, and some chiles.  The crust is flaky (the yellow color comes from either egg yolks or turmeric in the dough).

We kinda became addicted to these.  I really need to find a good source for frozen ones.  Or, better yet, learn how to make them.

After Tastee’s, we made our way back to Lynda Lee’s car for the ride back to the resort.  But, one last stop: Scotchies.  Scotchies is a very popular spot with locals and tourists alike.  They have an extensive menu of jerk items, sausage, and fish.

The popular Scotchies on the road from Montego Bay

The popular Scotchies on the road from Montego Bay

We opted to buy a little each of a lot of things:  jerk chicken, jerk pork, pork sausage, and grilled fish.  This, along with some produce from the market would be our dinner.

As a quick explanation, jerk seasoning is basically a dry rub or paste that is rubbed, traditionally, on pork or chicken.  It can be, however, used on other meats or even tofu. The two main ingredients in jerk seasoning are allspice (pimento) and habanero (Scotch Bonnet) peppers.  other spices can include cinnamon, black pepper, garlic, nutmeg, thyme, and salt.  Like any other indigenous spice blends in the world, it has hundreds of variations depending on the region and family.  The meat is traditionally cooked on pimento wood (allspice trees). But, you’re just as likely to find street vendors cooking jerk chicken over charcoal in barrels.

One of the cooks tending to the jerk chicken and pork at Scotchies

One of the cooks tending to the jerk chicken and pork at Scotchies.  Here, he’s cooking it over a charcoal pit with the pimento wood on top.  The corrugated sheet is placed on top to help keep the meat hot.

After this, Lynda Lee took us back to the resort.  We agreed to meet at 8am saturday morning.

She left.  We took our goodies upstairs, changed into our swimsuits and went down to the beach for a while.

Finally, we decided to eat dinner.  What we brought back was infinitely  better than the resort food.

The friut course: Pineapple, Apples, Papaya, Soursop

The fruit course: Pineapple, Otaheiti Apples, Papaya, Soursop

The inside of the Soursop. Lynda Lee picked this one out for us and it was perfect.  The texture was creamy and the flavor was jsut the right balance of sweet and sour.  There are seeds in the pulp, but they are hard enough that you'll catch them before you bite through them.

The inside of the Soursop. Lynda Lee picked this one out for us and it was perfect. The texture was creamy and the flavor was just the right balance of sweet and sour. There are seeds in the pulp, but they are hard enough that you’ll catch them before you bite through them.

The papaya. It was just short of being overripe.  I did try ome of the seeds.  They taste like raw radishes.

The papaya. It was just short of being overripe. I did try some of the seeds. They taste like raw radishes.

The apple.  The texture was unusual in that it looked like cotton but it was juicy with a good crunch to it.  The flavor is like almost like a mild apple (like a Golden Delicious) crossed with flowers.  Roses came to mind for me.

The apple. The texture was unusual in that it looked like cotton but it was juicy with a good crunch to it. The flavor is like almost like a mild apple (like a Golden Delicious) crossed with flowers. Roses came to mind for me.

The apple seed.  I thought briefly about bringng it home.  However, I'd've probably been breaking about 10 federal laws, so I opted to leave it.

The apple seed. I thought briefly about bringing it home. However, I’d’ve probably been breaking about 10 federal laws, so I opted to leave it.

Now, for the meat course.

The best of Scotchies

The best of Scotchies. From top right: Pork Sausage; Grilled Fish; Jerk Chicken; Jerk Pork

The fish was cooked with vegetables and chiles and steamed in foil.  Almost like an escabeche style.  The pork was tenderloin and very tender and flavorful.  The chicken, if a little dry, had a good spiciness to it.  Steve’s favorite was the pork sausage.  It had a good, if course, texture and a spicy flavor.  It all had a kick to it that I’m guessing is ubiquitous in Jamaican cooking.

We concluded that it was the best food day we’d had on the trip.  Well, the best day we’d had so far.

But, Saturday was coming and Lynda Lee was taking us out into the countryside.

 

Day 4, Saturday, February 1

Lynda Lee met us downstairs at 8am ready to take Steve & me into the wilderness.  We first made a stop in Montego Bay at a cook shop known as Poor Man’s Pelican for, what else? Ackee & Saltfish. Hey, eat what the natives eat.  It’s usually better.

Poor Man's Pelican.

Poor Man’s Pelican.

The breakfast here was a little different from the one in the market on Friday: The Ackee & Saltfish was made with the traditional salt cod instead of mackerel, the dumplings were boiled instead of fried, the yams were again boiled, and there was also a side of steamed & shredded cabbage.

Breakfast. This'll set you up for the day.

Breakfast. This’ll set you up for the day.

The more traditional Ackee & Saltfish made with salt cod.

The more traditional Ackee & Saltfish made with salt cod.

I can’t really compare the two.  They were equally delicious, but different.  I will say, though, I did like the boiled dumplings more than the fried.  And, the Ackee & Saltfish at Poor Man’s Pelican was a bit oilier (which probably helps to explain the boiled dumplings – soaks up some of the oil).

After breakfast, we headed the opposite direction towards the south and west coasts of the island.  We had an eventual goal in mind: The Pelican Bar in Pelican Bay.

The Jamaican countryside is not at all what I expected it to be.  I was thinking it would be all palm trees and sand.  The stereotypical vision of what a Caribbean island should look like.  Well, I was wrong.  It ranged from lush and green to hilly to brown and scrubby the further west and south we went.

No exactly the countryside, but we thought this sign was funny.

No exactly the countryside, but we thought this sign was funny.

Pictures from the car: Orange groves

Pictures from the car: Orange groves. I had no idea there were groves in Jamaica. Makes sense, really.

Pictures from the car: Fire Tops. They get their name from the red flowers that grow at the top of the trees.  I wish they grew closer to the ground so I caould get a better look at them.

Pictures from the car: Fire Tops. They get their name from the red flowers that grow at the top of the trees. I wish they grew closer to the ground so I could get a better look at them.

Picures from the car: Managed to get a good photo of this cook shop.  I wonder how the food is there.

Pictures from the car: Managed to get a good photo of this cook shop. I wonder how the food is there.

Pictures from the car: More Fire Tops with some hills.

Pictures from the car: More Fire Tops and the hills.

The island is ringed with basically one major highway (the A2) with smaller roads and spurs coming off of it.  Outside of the major towns, much of it is basically a two-lane road (at least what we drove on), and depending on the parish administration, can either be a well maintained road or a rut-filled dirt track.

I was admittedly reluctant to ask Lynda Lee to stop so I could take photos because there were essentially no shoulders.  One side of the road was rock face and the other was drop off into a deep valley. I finally worked up the nerve to ask her to stop and pull over so I could take a few photos.  We picked a good place.

I'm not sure what town we stopped near (it was somewhere between Ferris Cross and Bluefields; possibly Cave).  This was a neighborhood bar that wasn't yet open for the day's business.  They obviously serve Red Stripe.

I’m not sure what town we stopped near (it was somewhere between Ferris Cross and Bluefields; possibly Cave). This was a neighborhood bar that wasn’t yet open for the day’s business. They obviously serve Red Stripe.

Jamaican Cat. Being a cat person, I can appreciate this.

Jamaican Cat. Being a cat person, I can appreciate this.

Breadfruit Tree.  They weren't in season yet, so we didn't get to try them.  You can just see the fruit in the tree.

Breadfruit Tree. They weren’t in season yet, so we didn’t get to try them. You can just see the fruit in the tree.

They're a little difficult to see, but if you look closely, you can see some white peeking through the foliage.  Those are above-gound tombs.  Think New Orleans.  Only in the family backyard.

They’re a little difficult to see, but if you look closely, you can see some white peeking through the foliage. Those are above-ground tombs. Think New Orleans. Only in the family backyard.

After we had been there a few minutes, a gentleman walked up to us to see if we needed help.  When Lynda Lee explained we were just looking around, he started talking to us about the fruit that he had in his hands – sweetcups.  They are relatives of the passionfruit and crack just like eggs.

Underrripe Sweet Cup. He said they are very sour at this point.  Aren't those magnificant hands?

Underripe Sweet Cup. He said they are very sour at this point. Aren’t those magnificent hands?

Ripe Sweet Cup.  He said at this point they're very sweet.

Ripe Sweet Cup. He said at this point they’re very sweet.

While Lynda & I were talking to him, a lady walked up to see what was going on.  She and Steve began talking.  From what he could glean from their conversation (we were pretty deep into the country by now, so her Patois accent was quite thick), she was on her way to a funeral.  The man was shot, she said, and his body was frozen until they could bring him home. She was quite open about it.

She was dressed in what was likely her best clothes and wanted Steve to take her picture; so he did.

The lady on her way to a funeral. She just wanted her picture taken.

The lady on her way to a funeral. She just wanted her picture taken. Her shoes were magnificent. They had beaded snowmen on them.

After a few more nature shots:

I suspect this snail died of old age given the size of the shell. Who knows.  I didn't keep it.  There was something rattling around in there.

I suspect this snail died of old age given the size of the shell. Who knows. I didn’t keep it. There was something rattling around in there.

Ferns on the rockface on the opposite side of the road. I really had to watch for cars.

Ferns on the rock face on the opposite side of the road. I really had to watch for cars.

On the rockface.

On the rock face.

Soon, we were off again.

Steve and Lynda Lee headed to the car.

Steve and Lynda Lee headed to the car.

 

Our next stop was the small fishing village of Bluefields.  Lynda Lee had done some work there with USAID about 10 years or so ago and wanted to show us around a bit.

Fishing boats at Bluefields

Fishing boats at Bluefields

Looking out into the bay at Bluefields

Looking out into the bay at Bluefields

Fishermen working on their boats

Fishermen working on their boats

 

She said that while USAID basically provided the funding and got the program going, the local fishermen took it upon themselves to clean up the bay, begin fishing further out into the sea, and allow the fish to repopulate the bay.  They learned how to manage a sustainable fishing model.

One of the other things they started in Bluefields is a recycling program. All recycling barrels should be this festive.

One of the other things they started in Bluefields is a recycling program. All recycling barrels should be this festive.

As is my wont, I started wandering around.

A very petrified starfish inside a fish trap.

A very petrified starfish inside a fish trap.

Another one of Jamaica's beautiful flowers.

Another one of Jamaica’s beautiful flowers.  Lynda Lee said these are basically a wildflower that grows all over the island, but she couldn’t remember the name.

Boats in various stages of construction.

Boats in various stages of construction.

We all liked the name of this boat

We all liked the name of this boat

Steve & Lynda Lee

Steve & Lynda Lee

We continued on our way from Bluefields to the Pelican Bar.

The Pelican Bar has become quite the attraction since it was first built in 2001.  It was built originally by a fisherman, Floyd Forbes, as a place where he and his fellow fishermen could hang out after a day’s work.  He built it in Pelican Bay (so named because of the large number of pelicans who nest and roost there) on a sandbar.  Before long, the local hotels saw the potential of promoting the bar as a way to attract tourists to the area. In 2004, the bar was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan.  Floyd didn’t have the money to rebuild. However, a local hotel owner donated money and materials so the Pelican Bar could rebuild.

And a legend was born.

Before we left to go to the bar, Lynda Lee pulled out a rather sinister looking tool and told us that it was used to open jelly coconuts.  That’s when I learned jelly coconuts are simply fully ripe coconuts that haven’t dried yet (becoming the coconuts we’re all familiar with).  She cut the stem out with this tool – it looked like a very thin, curved, sharp trowel – and we all had a refreshing glass of jelly coconut water.

Lynda Lee and the jelly coconut

Lynda Lee and the jelly coconut

The bar itself is about a 10-minute boat ride from shore.  You simply hire a boat to take you out and the bartender will call when you’re ready to be picked up. Or, you can also set a time for the driver to pick you up. I think.

Our first glimpse of the Pelican Bar.

Our first glimpse of the Pelican Bar. That’s it on the horizon.

Once you get up to the bar, the driver ties the boat to the steps and you carefully get out.

This is the first thing Steve & I saw when we stepped inside:

Austin was here.

Austin was here.

Obviously, some people brought memorabilia to leave here and there is a lot of carving of names in the wood:

The leavings of previous visitors

The leavings of previous visitors

More visitor memorabiia

More visitor memorabilia. There was also more “Keep Austin Weird” stuff.

Steve & I both looked at each other and said, “Who brings a license plate on vacation?”.

After getting past the tourist-left rubbish, I made a point to just enjoy the beauty of the place.

The Pelican Bar in all its rustic charm

The Pelican Bar in all its rustic charm

The pelican roost.  There awere a lot of them out that day.

The pelican roost. There were a lot of them out that day.

Lynda Lee went snorkeling, Steve was inside drinking a Red Stripe, and I sat on the steps in the water and just decided to revel in the sounds of the sea.

The Caribbean was litlerally chest deep here.

The Caribbean was literally chest deep here.

Lynda Lee was snorkeling out there somewhere

Lynda Lee was snorkeling out there somewhere

After awhile, I moved to the back to dry off and get a little more sun.  Steve got in the sea and swam a bit while Lynda Lee joined me.

Interesting juxposition, I thought.

Interesting juxtaposition, I thought.

One more view from the Pelican Bar

One more view from the Pelican Bar

While Lynda Lee and I were talking, a fisherman docked at the bar and asked us if we wanted to buy some of his catch.  We declined.  However, you can buy seafood from the fishermen and they’ll cook it up for you at the bar.  Or, sometimes, the bar has something already made.  We were still full from breakfast, so we didn’t eat anything.

But, the fisherman did join some of the other gentlemen in the bar for a game of dominoes.  It seems to be a contact sport here.  At the least, it’s taken very seriously.  It was fun to watch.

A game of dominoes in progress.

A game of dominoes in progress.

About this time, we asked the bartender to call to shore so our boat could pick us up.  The wind was starting to pick up and we could see clouds on the horizon, so we decided it was a good time to go.  Also, another boat of tourists was coming towards the bar.  Call me anti-social, but I wasn’t having any of that.

But first, since we had to wait anyway, a little more relaxation and photos.

Basically, the back dock. I'm pretty sure this is where most of the fishermen will dock their boats. That's me & Lynda Lee under the canopy.  I had a sunburn by this point.

Basically, the back dock. I’m pretty sure this is where most of the fishermen will moor their boats. That’s me & Lynda Lee under the canopy. I had a sunburn by this point.

Sunning crabs. I'll bet they're delicious.

Sunning crabs.

Our boat arrived and we were ferried back to shore.  After hosing ourselves and our belongings off  – kinda – we headed back towards Montego Bay.

We ran into some pretty heavy rain and the reality of the rut-filled dirt roads hit hard.  They become mud pits.  Lynda Lee smartly had a 4-wheel drive; so, while problematic, the roads were passable.

On our way out, we passed through a town called Whitehouse where they were setting up a row of cookshops for the Saturday night crowd.  Coming back, the shops were open for business and we decided to stop.

Some of cookshops in Whitehouse getting ready for Saturday night.

Some of cookshops in Whitehouse getting ready for Saturday night.

We were immediately surrounded by vendors hocking their wares.  It all looked really good.  Lynda Lee, in her quiet way, told them we were just looking and they seemed to back off rather quickly.  One lady did say that she had some fish fresh out of the fryer.  Lynda Lee said that was the person to see.

Fish fresh out of the fryer.  She had parrot fish and red snapper.  We opted for parrot fish.

Fish fresh out of the fryer. She had parrot fish and red snapper. We opted for parrot fish.

Bammy Bread.  A very heavy and soft flat bread made with cassava.

Bammy Bread. A very heavy and soft flat bread made with cassava.

Snack time.  We had some fried parrot fish, bammy bread, and pepper shrimp (better known to us as crawfish)

Bammy Bread, Pepper Shrimp, fried Parrot Fish.

Bammy Bread, Pepper Shrimp, fried Parrot Fish.

It was, quite honestly, the best fried fish I’ve ever eaten.  I don’t know what she did, but it was magic.  If I ever get back there, I’m gonna ask her.

My dad told me when he was going to college in Florida, he and his friends would just throw these back.  Boy, did he miss out.

My dad told me when he was going to college in Florida, he and his friends would just throw these back. Boy, did he miss out.  The fish has a delicate flavor and texture.

Steve doesn't normally like crawfish, but he enjoyed these.

Steve doesn’t normally like crawfish, but he enjoyed these.

Bammy Bread. Another starch-heavy component of Jamaican cuisine. Perfect to help mitigate the spiciness of some of the food. And damn delicious.

Bammy Bread. Another starch-heavy component of Jamaican cuisine. Perfect to help mitigate the spiciness of some of the food. And damn delicious.

Lynda Lee told us that these cookstands really cater to the locals rather than tourists.  I concluded that’s why the food is so good.

The lovely Janet. The maker of the best fried fish I've ever eaten.

The lovely Janet. The maker of the best fried fish I’ve ever eaten.

As we moved further into Whitehouse, we stopped at Peter Tosh’s house.  It was one of Steve’s goals that we find it (his first reggae album purchase was Tosh’s “Legalize It”).  It wasn’t easy to find.  The entrance is tucked behind a coffee shop.

Steve took a quick tour of the grounds with the caretaker and had a rather lengthy conversation with him about Tosh’s music.  Steve seemed to be enjoying himself.  It could’ve also been the wafts of ganja emanating from the caretaker and the whole place.  Lynda & I could smell it and we were in the car.

A quick biography of Peter Tosh: He was an original member of Bob Marley & The Wailers but had a falling out with Marley and left the group in 1973.  He went on to a solo career and released nine albums, including “Equal Rights”, “Bush Doctor”,  and “Mama Africa”.  He was killed in September 1987 after a group of gunmen, one of whom he knew, invaded his home and demanded money.  After he told them he didn’t have any, he was shot and killed.

Peter Tosh's tomb. Steve gave the guide $1000 Jamaican to help build a proper museum.  However, Steve suspected the guy was going to spend it on ganja.

Peter Tosh’s tomb. Steve gave the guide $1000 Jamaican to help build a proper museum. I hope they meet their goal.

Again, we were off.

Lynda Lee had been extolling the virtues of this one jerk stand to us even before we set foot in Jamaica: Border Jerk.  It sits on the border of Westmoreland & Elizabeth Parishes, hence the name.

Once again, she didn’t disappoint.

Yes. Welcome.

Yes. Welcome.

I suspect because Border Jerk caters more the local population as opposed to tourists, the food is made with a bit more care as opposed to assembly-lining it. (Not to say they did that at Scotchies. But they had so much made that had no doubt sat around for awhile it took something away from the whole experience.)

Our Border Jerk Dinner:

Our Border Jerk Dinner: From the top: Jerk Pork; Jerk Chicken; Festival

Again, it was like comparing apples and oranges with Scotchies.  While we agreed that the chicken was most definitely better at Border Jerk – tender, juicy, and just the right balance of spicy – the pork was a different cut (I couldn’t quite tell what it was) while the pork from Scotchies was tenderloin.  They were both equally wonderful. And, we finally got to try Festival.  A slightly sweet fried flour fritter.  All this paired with a Red Stripe? Ambrosial.

Beautiful periwinkle flowers. Frustratingly, I couldn't find the names of these, either.

Beautiful periwinkle flowers. Frustratingly, I couldn’t find the names of these, either.

It must have been a strange set of circumstances for a boar's head from Florida ended up in the Jamaican countryside.

It must have been a strange set of circumstances for a boar’s head from Florida ended up in the Jamaican countryside.

We finally made it back to the resort, exhausted, around 6pm.  After some hugs, almost tearful goodbyes, and promises to stay in touch, we took our leave of Lynda Lee.

It was a great day.

There was a “Farewell to Jamaica” party sponsored by the resort and our tour group that evening.  Steve & I opted to just stay in our room and then take a late walk on the beach.  That’s about the time we decided we really wanted to come back someday.  Just hire Lynda Lee for a week and just tour around the island and see and experience as much as we could.

And, to bed.

 

Day 5, Sunday, February 2 – Departure Day

We didn’t think to bring any food back from our Saturday travels to have for breakfast, so we lurched downstairs and back to Port Maria for their breakfast buffet.  We were prepared to be underwhelmed and we weren’t disappointed.

In fact, I won’t even bore you with the details.

But, we did get this great last view of the beach:

Last view of the beach. Sigh.

Last view of the beach. Sigh.

I checked the weather back in Fort Worth.  It was 30F.  Ugh. I told Steve this and we dressed accordingly.  Many of our fellow travelers were about to embark wearing their summer togs. I figured they’d be in for a surprise.  Or, they just wanted to enjoy the experience a little longer.  I didn’t hear one person say they were anxious to go home.  I wasn’t surprised.

Many of our fellow travellers either didn’t leave the resort or went strictly to the tourist areas on the island.  I tried not to pass judgement.  A vacation means different things to different people.

So, it was back on the bus to be shuttled to the airport.  After the usual fun of getting the boarding passes, checking the bags, going through security, and finally making it to the gate, Steve & I spied some storefronts selling records, Jamaican foodstuffs, and meat patties.  You can guess where each of us went.  I think Steve bought 4 albums that he hadn’t been able to find in Montego Bay (in fact, the store owner told him to find vinyl, he’d have to go to Kingston).  I bought some jerk seasoning that Janet at the market recommended to me and some Jamaican honey.

We then made our way to the shop with the meat patties.  Our final meal in Jamaica:

Our final meal in Jamiaca.

Our final meal in Jamaica.

Steve went back the shop after we ate and bought two more for us to eat on the plane.

Yes, it was really cold when we made it home.  After basically being waved through customs and finally finding my dad, we were on our way back to my parents.  We did stop for fried chicken to take home to Mom.  Yeah. it was good.

The next morning before we drove back to Austin, Steve & I went to breakfast with my parents.

And, I saw this.

Ice. Wecome home.

Ice. Wecome home.

Kinda drove home the fact that we weren’t in the Caribbean anymore.

 

Once again I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Jamaica has a reputation, sure.  Some of it is deserved, some not.  But, as Steve & I discovered, when you let the scales fall from your eyes, you can find a whole new world you never expected.  The people of Jamaica are lovely, wonderful people with a lot of pride in themselves and their country.

I highly recommend the journey.  And hire Lynda Lee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jamaican Odyssey, Part 1 1

Posted on February 13, 2014 by Sahar

When my husband, Steve, called me last October from work to inform me that we had “won” a trip to Jamaica, it’s fair to say I was underwhelmed.  For one, Jamaica was never a place that was on my radar as a desired destination.  I honestly imagined it to be either full of walled-off resorts hosting pasty tourists frying themselves to a collective crisp trying to tan; or, outside the resorts, to be like the legendary tough streets of Kingston with clouds of ganja smoke hanging in the air.

Needless to say, Steve was disappointed in my reaction.

A little background on the “winning” of this trip.  Steve & I own a small restaurant he inherited in his hometown of Vernon, Texas (it’s about 20 minutes from the Oklahoma state line).  The lady who leases the restaurant from us does business with a food distributor in far north Texas (they’re based in the Panhandle) that, every year, gives away trips to a few of its customers as a thank you for their business.  Now, our lady has taken a few of these trips herself – and she deserves it – but, this year, she asked if it could be transferred to Steve & me.  She knows we enjoy travel to farther-flung lands than she is used to (Las Vegas is the height of excitement for her), and Jamaica just wasn’t for her, she decided.  Plus, we have passports.

That’s how we ended up in Jamaica.

I let Steve do all the planning (normally my domain) for our extracurricular activities.  My only stipulation was that we find a way to get away from the resort for at least one day so we could see something of the “real Jamaica”.  We decided that if we were going to actually go somewhere that we knew next to nothing about except for jerk chicken, Red Stripe beer, rum, reggae music, Bob Marley, Rastafarians, and Yardies, we’d better do some boots-on-the-ground learning.

So, off we went.

Steve & I drove up from Austin to my parents’ house near Fort Worth on Tuesday, January 28. Our flight was scheduled to leave Wednesday morning.  And, since our tickets had us leaving from DFW, up we went.  We got a later start on Tuesday than we would have liked because it had iced over the night before.  We weren’t able to get on the road until about 2:30 pm.  Then, of course, we hit the legendary Fort Worth traffic right at rush hour.  Lovely.  We finally made it to my parents reasonably sane.

 

Day 1 – January 29, Wednesday

Keller, TX/DFW Airport/Miami-Dade Airport/Montego Bay, Jamaica (Iberostar Resort)

Our day started at 4:30 am (at least mine did).  Since our flight was scheduled to leave at 9:10, we needed to arrive at  the airport by 7.  (Now, I’ll just admit here that I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to getting to the airport early. I’ve missed flights before [some my fault, some not] and there are few things that ratchet up my anxiety level faster.) 

Mom made us one of my favorite food memories from her kitchen – fried egg sandwiches.  It was a  slightly more grown-up version with whole grain bread instead of Mrs. Baird’s.

Now, as we all know, you can make something for yourself that your mom used to make when you were a kid and it tastes pretty good.  But, there’s nothing like Mom making it for you.

Dad loaded us up, Mom gave us each a hug and one more admonition not to bring them back anything because “you’re going to get it back anyway”, and, off we went. Dad drove, he and Steve conversed, and I was half asleep.

Airport check-in was relatively painless. (I do have to say DFW has this stuff down.) And, as always, the TSA security screening was an unexpected adventure. A full body scan or a pat-down? Always an unpleasant decision.

We finally made it through to the secure area.  I changed some money (as a FYI, the Jamaican Dollar is worth roughly $.01), and we headed towards the gate.

A bit of art in Terminal D. The disks on the floor are lights that, when they light up, make a tonal noise. The glass panels amplify the tones and keep them from echoing.  Interesting concept for an airport.

A bit of art in Terminal D. The disks on the floor are lights that, when they light up, make different tonal sounds. The glass panels amplify and direct the tones and keep them from echoing. Interesting concept for an airport.

After about 15 minutes of sitting at the gate, Steve & I decided we were still hungry.  So, off we went to forage for food. Well, decent food anyway – sometimes very hard to find in the airport.  We settled on Einstein Brothers Bagels. I know it’s a chain, but it’s a decent enough one. Plus, I figured we wouldn’t be eating again until we reached the resort, so this would set us up for a while.

Einstein Brothers Bage version of the Everything Bagel with Lox & Cream Cheese shmear.  Meh.

Einstein Brothers version of the Everything Bagel with Lox & Cream Cheese shmear. Meh.

After a rather cramped flight where almost everyone was playing musical chairs because, inexplicably, the travel company didn’t seat couples together, we made it to Miami.  We were rushed to our next flight (2 gates away) where it was hurry up and wait again. There was another round of musical chairs when we were able to board.

About 2 hours later we landed at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  It definitely wasn’t DFW. But, we all caught, what was for most of us, our first glimpse of Jamaica. My first impression? It was very green.

There is some small comfort that Passport and Immigration control officers are about the same everywhere: fairly robotic and slightly rude – at least with non-citizens.  Jamaica was no exception to this rule.

The lines at passport control for us non-citizens. I took this before I saw the sign not to take photos.

The lines at passport control for us non-citizens. I took this before I saw the sign not to take photos.

After about 30 minutes – a surprisingly short wait time considering the lines – we retrieved our checked bags and headed to the buses waiting to take us to the resort.

Heading towards the bus.

Heading towards the bus.

I couldn't help but think of ZZ Top at about this time.

I couldn’t help but think of ZZ Top at about this time.

It was about a 30 minute ride from the airport to our resort.  At least from the bus, anyway, we saw a little of the real Jamaica.

Off we go.

Off we go.

One of the better photos from the bus.

One of the better photos from the bus. It’s hard to see in this photo, but it’s fairly typical for Jamaican homes, if they can afford it, to put bars on the windows and doors. If they have a patio, they bar that off, too. A direct result of the crime rate.

One more from the bus.

One more from the bus.  Not sure what this building is. Apartments aren’t common, so this might be a government building or school.

We finally made it to the resort.  I was thrilled because I wanted a shower. Steve was just glad we were done traveling for a few days.

The company booked our group in the Iberostar Rose Hall Grand Resort. The 5-Star side. All inclusive. Fancy stuff.  The room was lovely and this was our view:

Our view. Nothing to complain about here.

Nothing to complain about here.

After our bags finally arrived to our room, Steve & I cleaned up and headed down to the “Welcome to Jamaica” buffet the resort arranged for our group in the Port Maria restaurant – an open-air buffet restaurant next to the beach.

The food was resort food – beautifully presented, plentiful, and bland.  But, it was open bar. So, there was that.

The cold cuts selection.

The cold cuts selection.

A few of the compound salads.  I will say this, they did lay out quite the selection of salads and fresh vegetables.

A few of the compound salads. I will say this, they did lay out quite the selection of salads and fresh vegetables.

Chafing dish station.

Chafing dish station.

Our overly laden plates included: Salad, Ham, Salmon, Lamb Chops (which I suspect were goat), Bass in Pepper Sauce, Shrimp in Romesco, Pasta Salad, Rolls, Filet Mignon, Swordfish, Broccoli with Almonds, Seafood Salad, Cheeses, Lamb with Caraway Sauce (again, I suspect goat), and Rice Pilaf (really, just boiled white rice. It did have flavor, though.)

Steve's plate.

Steve’s plate.

My plate. Honestly, I did feel a little ahamed.

My plate. Honestly, I did feel a little ashamed.

Shared plate #2. I should've just stuck with the cheese and goat. I'd've been a lot happier with my meal.

Shared plate #2. I should’ve just stuck with the cheese, rice, and goat. I would have been a lot happier with my meal.

The photo is a little dark, but this is part of the dessert table. Sadly, the desserts were pretty marginal, too.

The photo is a little dark, but this is part of the dessert table. Sadly, the desserts were pretty marginal, too.

Our shared dessert plate: Mango "Sushi" (really just thinly sliced mango rolled around cake with gelled strawberry filling), Lemon Custard, Chocolate Cake, and Almond Cookies.

Our shared dessert plate: Mango “Sushi” (really just thinly sliced mango rolled around cake with jellied strawberry filling), Lemon Custard, Chocolate Cake, and Almond Cookies.

But, the drinks were excellent. I went all '80's and had a couple of Pina Coladas. Steve stuck with Red Stripe.

But, the drinks were excellent. I went all ’80’s and had a couple of Pina Coladas. Steve stuck with Red Stripe.

After a short nighttime stroll on the beach, we decided we were done with the day and headed up to sleep.

 

Day 2, January 30, Thursday

Iberostar Resort, Dunn’s River Falls

This was the one day we decided to do a group activity.  We were going to climb Dunn’s River Falls.

But first, breakfast.  We decided on room service. I was feeling it from the night before (and not in a good way), so I opted for something reasonably light.  Steve took on the full breakfast.

Breakfast. It was all right - as hotel breakfasts go. At least it wasn't a cook-it-yourself waffle bar.

Breakfast. It was all right – as hotel breakfasts go. At least it wasn’t a cook-it-yourself waffle bar.

My breakfast: MAngo Juice, Hot Chocolate, Egg White Omelete with Pumpkin Flowers (however, this appreard to be simply diced pumpkin).

My breakfast: Mango Juice, Hot Chocolate, Egg White Omelette with Pumpkin Flowers (however, this was simply diced pumpkin), hash browns, and toast.

Steve's Breakfast: Coffee, Orange Juice, Eggs with Cheese (American Style, they called it), Bacon, Hash Browns, Toast.

Steve’s Breakfast: Coffee, Orange Juice, Eggs with Cheese (American Style, they called it), Bacon, Hash Browns, Toast.

Along with breakfast, we received a copy of one of Jamaica’s daily papers, The Daily Gleaner. It was an interesting read.  One story about a man who was killed contained the line, “…when police asked about the (man’s) lifestyle, the family fidgeted nervously”.  Then, there was the phonetic spelling of the Patois (the local dialect) of the witnesses.  Then, there was a take-down by the reporter of the “thugs”.

You just don’t get kind of reporting here anymore.

Dunn’s River Falls are east of Montego Bay at Ocho Rios (another popular tourist spot).  The falls drain directly into the Caribbean Sea – one of the few falls in the world that drain directly into the sea or ocean.  Another claim to fame is in 1657 when the British defeated a Spanish expeditionary force from Cuba during the Battle of Los Chorreras.  It was also used as a location for “Dr. No”.

Dunn’s River Falls is an approximately 800 foot tall waterfall that is terraced and is actually not too difficult a climb, as waterfalls go. Not to say it isn’t tricky in spots.  Generally, a human chain is formed before you head up the falls to help support each other along. (I ended up holding hands between Steve and a gentleman named Al.  Al was great.  So was his girlfriend, Emily.) You’re grateful for the lagoons so you can stand is some calm water for just a few minutes.

My first glimpse of Dunn's River Falls.

My first glimpse of Dunn’s River Falls.

Each group is given a guide.  Ours was the very affable Mr. Wilson. He liked to hug the ladies. But not in a creepy way.

Mr. Wilson in the center in the blue shirt. Lovely man.

Mr. Wilson in the center in the blue shirt. Lovely man.

Each group was also given a videographer.  His sole purpose was to take photos and film your embarrassment so you could buy it on CD for $40 at the end of the climb. He was very enthusiastic and managed to get just about everyone in our group to do some “whoop-whoop” noises. Steve & I did not participate in this.

Our assigned videographer. Sadly, I can't remember his name. Very enthusiastic.

Our assigned videographer. Sadly, I can’t remember his name. Very enthusiastic guy.

While I was waiting for video guy to finish his pep talk, I wandered a bit.

A lovely day at Dunn's River Falls.

A lovely day at Dunn’s River Falls.

One of the beautiful flowering plants in Jamiaca - Ixora.

One of the beautiful flowering plants in Jamaica – Ixora.

Then, it was time to climb the falls.  We formed our human chain and got started.

A quick glimpse back at the Carribbean.

A quick glimpse back at the Caribbean.

A glimpse forward. This about the time we hit the first lagoon. Quite the mass of humanity there that day.

A glimpse forward. This about the time we hit the first lagoon. Quite the mass of humanity there that day.

We had a great time. Got very wet. As one would when they’re climbing a waterfall.

It was also fascinating to watch the guides climbing the falls, in some cases, all their lives.  They were climbing those rocks like goats on a mountain.  I just know I’d never be that nimble.

At this point, we're about halfway up.

At this point, we’re about halfway up.

Oh, the humanity.

Oh, the humanity.

Another lagoon stop, another photo. Despite the crush of people, the falls were actually quite lovely.

Another lagoon stop, another photo. Despite the crush of people, the falls were actually quite lovely.

At about the 3/4 up the falls mark, Steve stepped into a hole in the rocks, tripped, and fell square on his right knee.  He already had a broken toe on the same side, so that didn’t help.  Once Mr. Wilson and I got him up and into the next lagoon, we decided enough was enough.  One of the ladies leading our group, Brittany, was just lovely and stayed with us until she was sure Steve was all right. (He was. Just a little sore.)

Our only complaint about the climb up was the amount of people they were trying to push through at once.  Not only was there our group, but there were perhaps 6 others plus two cruise ships had come in.  So, it was either a waiting situation until there was an opening, or you were rushed up the falls to make room for the next group.

The guides are well trained, friendly, and efficient.  I suspect there are few truly serious accidents.  And I’m sure that they are used to the waves of tourists coming through.  Overall, people seemed to have fun.  I know we did.  I was also proud Steve & I got as far as we did.

We left the falls area and just wandered slowly through the rest of the park.

One of the many Banyon trees that dot the island.

One of the many Banyon trees that dot the island.

I thought these were beautiful flowers.  However, sadly, I can't find the name of these. But, they do look similar to daisies without the large pollen cluster in the center.

I thought these were beautiful flowers. However, I couldn’t find the name of them.

Ginger. It's everywhere.

Ginger. It’s everywhere.

Another of Jamaica's flora.

Another of Jamaica’s flora. Swamp Hibiscus.

I say we wandered slowly.  That was true, until we hit the souvenir stands.  Oy.  It was like a run for the hills trying to get through there. The sellers were really sweet and generous until they found out we didn’t bring any extra cash.  Their M.O. was to walk up to us and give us each a “free” wooden figurine (quite cute, actually).  Then, they would ask our  names so they could carve it into the wood.  That’s when we would stop them and say we didn’t have any extra cash on us.  Then, the figurine wasn’t so free.

Oh, well.  They have to make a living, too.  One vendor did give us each a free necklace, though.  Free after Steve bought a small carved wooden cat from him with what little cash he did have on him.

It started to rain lightly, so we made our excuses and finally got back to the bus.  Most everyone slept at least a little on the way back to the resort. I know I did.

We made it back to the resort just in time for a quick change for the beach and lunch.

For lunch, it was back to a buffet at Port Maria.  The food was a little better than the night before. There was more seafood, so that made us happy.

Between the two of us, we had Lobster tail (which, much to my disappointment, was chopped, mixed with a cheese sauce, and put back in the shell), fried fish, a version of Caprese Salad, Squid Romesco, Conch Fritters, Broccoli au Gratin, cheese, fried potatoes, sausage, boiled shrimp, and crab claws.

Our only excuse for the amount of food was that we were really hungry after climbing the falls.

Steve's plate.

Steve’s plate.

My plate.

My plate.

I managed to snag some of the last chilled shrimp and crab claws. They were the best part of the meal.

I managed to snag some of the last chilled shrimp and crab claws. They were the best part of the meal. Those and the conch fritters.

Dessert. Top: Fruit & Custard Cups; Bottom: 1000 Leaves

Dessert. Top: Fruit & Custard Cups; Bottom: 1000 Leaves

After lunch, we made our way down to the beach to relax.  We found a couple of unoccupied beach chairs, dragged them down to the water’s edge and just lazed for a couple of hours.

I did do a little walking around and took photos.  Steve did take a dip in the sea.  We both read and dozed. A lovely afternoon.

Lifeguard stand. There are several of these on the beach, but I never saw this one used.

Lifeguard stand. There are several of these on the beach, but I never saw this one used.

Rock jetty at the boundary of the beach.

Rock jetty at the boundary of the beach.

Looking out to the Carribbean Sea.

Looking out to the Caribbean Sea.

The Carribbean Sea.

The Caribbean Sea.

Sun & Clouds.

Sun & Clouds.

Some beach activities going on. We stayed well away fom those.

There were some beach activities going on. We stayed well away from those. Surprisingly, though, the beach, while full, wasn’t overly crowded. Many people chose the pool area instead.

After a quick rinse to get off the excess sand, Steve & I went to our room, cleaned up, and eventually, went to dinner.

We did have reservations at the Japanese restaurant, but Steve really wanted to go to Galleon, the resort’s steakhouse. We ran into Brittany, who, after asking about Steve’s knee, was able to get us into the restaurant despite us not having a reservation.

I wasn’t really hungry and I honestly could’ve gone the rest of the night without eating.  But Steve didn’t want to eat alone and he didn’t want room service.  I opted to just get an appetizer as a compromise.

My dinner. Spider Crab Terrine with Lobster in Consumme.

My dinner. Spider Crab Terrine with Lobster in Consomme.

Basically, this was a glorified, bready crab cake with a very thin slice of lobster somewhere in the center.  The consomme was almost jelly-like with what was no doubt the liberal addition of cornstarch.  It also tasted like celery. Celery’s fine as a flavoring, but it shouldn’t be the dominant flavor; certainly not with seafood.  The dish wasn’t terrible.  Just disappointing.

Steve's Surf & Turf.

Steve’s Surf & Turf.

The sides for Steve's Surf & Turf: Caesar Salad and Asparagus.

The sides for Steve’s Surf & Turf: Caesar Salad and Asparagus.

Other than saying the food was good, Steve really didn’t have anything to say about it.  He ate it all.

Then, there was dessert.

My dessert: Cheesecake with Mountain Fruit.

My Dessert: Cheesecake with Mountain Fruit.

What to say.  I’m not sure where the “Mountain Fruit” part came from since, unless I’m woefully ignorant about this, blackberries, grapes, and watermelon don’t grow in the mountains.  Plus, the jellied strawberry topping/glaze seems to be a popular go-to in the pastry kitchen.  The cheesecake was lighter in texture than one would think of when they think of cheesecake and tasted fine. Not great; just fine.

Steve's Dessert: Chocolate Cake

Steve’s Dessert: Chocolate Cake

Fancy. He was happy. Note the use of more Strawberry Glaze.

I went back up to the room to read and go to sleep.  Steve decided to go listen to a reggae band playing near the pool area, smoke one of the cigars he bought, and enjoy a Rum Punch.

Thus, Day 2 ended.  Day 3, we were going off the reservation.  We couldn’t wait.

 

Part 1, fin.  Part 2, soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Photographic Study of Texas State Fair Food 0

Posted on October 31, 2013 by Sahar

State fairs are as American as baseball, jazz, and SUVs.  They started out as a way for farmers and their families to have a fun day out and  to show off their best produce, livestock, foods, and handicrafts as well as a way for the surrounding communities to come together.

For me, the State Fair of Texas is a rite of passage for anyone who grew up here.  It started in 1886 in Dallas as a private venture but was sold to the city of Dallas in 1904.  It was the first state fair (beginning in 1913) to feature an auto show as a permanent exhibition.

A sweet 2014 Corvette.

A sweet 2014 Corvette at the 91st year of the car show at the Sate Fair of Texas

And, legend has it that the corn dog was invented by Carl & Neil Fletcher for the fair in 1938.

Fletcher's Corny Dogs. Always next to Big Tex near the midway. Legend has it that the Fletcher Brothers invented the corny dog in 1938.

Fletcher’s Corny Dogs. Always next to Big Tex near the midway. Legend has it that the Fletcher Brothers invented the corny dog in 1938. The queues are crazy long.

The Fair is held every year in the beautiful Fair Park.  In 1986, it was included on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a historic landmark.  The buildings in Fair Park were built for the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936.  They’ve undergone substantial restoration over the years and the facades are back to their original Art Deco magnificence.

One of the statues at Fair Park that was sculpted for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition.

One of the statues at Fair Park that was sculpted for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition.

One of the Art Deco facades at Fair Park. They've undergone extensive restoration over the years.

One of the Art Deco facades at Fair Park. They’ve undergone extensive restoration over the years.

Beautiful.

Beautiful.

One more.

One more.

 

And, then, there’s Big Tex. The State Fair mascot since 1952.

Big Tex. He burned down last year due to an electrical fire. This is a new iteration of him. The video of him burning last year is on YouTube.

Big Tex. He burned down last year due to an electrical fire. But he’s back in all his glory. The video of him burning last year is on YouTube.

A slightly weird butter sculpture of Big Tex.

A slightly weird butter sculpture of Big Tex.

 

Of course, what state fairs are now best known for are their midway foods.  And the crazier the better.  Especially in the frialated arts.  Deep fried Coke, butter, bacon, Oreos, lemonade, candy bars, and sliders are just a few of the foods that have succumbed to batter and hot oil.  Texas is no exception. In fact, it’s led the way.

In short, it’s a day to forget the diet and cholesterol count and just indulge. Just be sure to walk everywhere.  It’ll assuage the guilt a little.

I went to the fair this year with my husband, Steve; my dad; and my nephews.  I haven’t been since Steve & I began dating – 21 years ago.  The band we saw: the Texas Tornadoes. They were supporting their first album.

Now, we didn’t get to try the deep-fried butter.  The queue was of epic proportions.

The fried butter queue. The photo doesn't do it justice. It not only stretched from the front of the stand, but wrapped around the back on both sides.

The fried butter queue. The photo doesn’t capture the craziness.  It not only stretched from the front of the stand, but wrapped around the back on both sides.

No deep-fried Coke, either.  We couldn’t find it.

The big taste-test winner was “Deep Fried Thanksgiving Dinner”.  We didn’t try that either. Basically none of us could quite bring ourselves to try it.  Not sure why.

However, we did eat our fair share of deep-fried goodies and meats in tube form.

Husband Steve with his corny dog.

Husband Steve with his corny dog.

Dad with his corny dog. It was the one thing he demanded we stop for.

Dad with his corny dog. It was the one thing he insisted we stop for.

Nephew the Younger ejoying his Sausage on a Stick. I had one, too. Nephew the Elder had a corny dog (he was too wiley for me to get a photo of him. I'm surprised I got a photo of this guy.)

Nephew the Younger enjoying his Sausage on a Stick. I had one, too. Nephew the Elder had a corny dog. (He was too wily for me to get a photo of him. I’m surprised I got a photo of this guy. Admittedly, the photo doesn’t do him justice.)

Nephew the Elder was all about the deep fried sweets. This is deep fried cheesecake. I had a bite. I liked it in spite of myself.

Nephew the Elder was all about the deep fried sweets. This is  cheesecake. I had a bite. I liked it in spite of myself.

Deep Fried Frito Pie. As a group, we enjoyed this so much we bought it twice.

Deep Fried Frito Pie. As a group, we enjoyed this so much we bought it twice.

Probably the 2nd healthiest thing eaten all day. Sausage on a bun with mustard and sauerkraut.

Probably the 2nd healthiest thing eaten all day. Sausage on a bun with mustard and sauerkraut.