Travel Tips: Simple European Train Booking

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Other than a short trip through Hamburg for Tim’s work, our only experience with European train travel was using a BritRail Pass in 2009. It was a great experience and we enjoyed the freedom of having the pass for our trip from London to Scotland. We were able to travel north to Edinburgh and return from Glasgow and incorporate stops along the way.

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For our upcoming trip from London to Lisbon we will be traveling through four countries and utilizing various rail systems. We also wanted to travel during the day to maximize the amount of time we would have to see the countryside of western France and Spain. Where to begin? After searching through many pages we realized that everything we needed was there for us at The Man in Seat Sixty-One. The wealth of information is amazing, but beware, as you can easily get distracted as you plan hundreds of amazing itineraries.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

After looking through the material we found an itinerary that was just what we were looking for. We chose to take a longer and slightly more expensive four day journey from London to Lisbon via Paris, Irun, Vigo and Porto. The site laid out which trains to take, which stations they use, time for each leg and the estimated cost.

So the next question was how (and when) to book the tickets as the trip involved four different systems: Eurostar, TGF, Renfe and Portuguese Regional trains. We utilized Loco2 which is a British site that allows tickets to be purchased from Canada or almost anywhere you happen to be. One thing we hadn’t realized when we started researching was that most all of the European trains operate similar to airline style in that seats go on sale up to 3 months in advance and prices rise the closer you get to the departure date.

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Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Once we had decided on the route we wanted and the dates, selection of our tickets was very straightforward on the site. You can view your seat selection (predetermined) at the time of booking. Some systems allow print at home ticketing while others require you to pick them up at the station using a reservation number. We were even able to purchase tickets on the the same transaction for the local British trains from London to Swindon where we will be house sitting.

We will let you know in October how we make out using the rail system itself, but for now we are very pleased with the ease in which we were able to research and purchase tickets. We are also trying out Tripit which collects all of our travel arrangements, reservations and information in one place with a handy app to use on the go. It is amazing how much technology can enable us to do once we take the opportunity to learn how to use it. We can’t imagine living this lifestyle without access to the tools that are currently available online.

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Unfinished Business: Back in Nova Scotia

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Wolfville, Nova Scotia

We have been back in Nova Scotia for a month now and it has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride since we left the sunny beaches of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. We accomplished everything we had hoped for and more during our first extended trip.

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Playa Coco, Costa Rica, April 2016

We had promised ourselves that when we returned to Nova Scotia we would try to maintain the same feelings of optimism, relaxation, exploration and adventure that worked so well for us over the past three months. Things didn’t work out quite as we thought. Here we were in mid-July, the weather was very cool and damp and we were in the same house with our old routines and absolutely no interest even for a house showing. This left us to wonder if we were even going to be able to rent it before we left in September. We were starting to experience some of the same concerns and anxieties we experienced back in March.

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Back garden of our house

We took a deep breath and started to process it all again, but in a lighter way. There were plenty of routine things to keep us busy and the weather was excellent once the first week of chilly days passed. We had visits with family and tried to focus on the all of the positive aspects of the past three months and the excitement of our upcoming adventures, but little setbacks kept creeping in.

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View from the Look-off near Canning, Nova Scotia

We couldn’t sell our house and had to try the rental approach. Some disappointments in that process also added to the reality of how much was out of our control when it comes to dealing with the housing market.

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Across the Grand Pre dykelands to Cape Blomidon, Nova Scotia

We also learned we are going to have to get used to the fact that not everyone is as excited or as free of responsibilities as we are. We have accepted the feeling of being outsiders in many ways as we set off on our travels. Other long term travelers have shared that they have experienced similar reactions. We are okay with this and will make everything work. We may never get this chance again and we want to make the best of this opportunity we have created!

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Taken from the London Eye while on our 2 day visit in 2009

However has been a lot of fun making the final preparations for our European fall. With the money we save by house sitting for a month we decided to treat ourselves to two weeks in London. We were there for two nights in 2009 and liked what we saw. We have rented an apartment and purchased a London Pass and Oyster card to become the ultimate tourists. We’ll let you know how they work out but they do seem like a great way to see many of London’s top attractions at somewhat reasonable cost.

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London Tower Bridge 2009

We also have our train tickets for the trip to Portugal in October. We set out to be aimless nomads but we already have apartments booked in Lisbon and Lagos, Portugal as well as a cabina in Ecuador for the winter. Perhaps we aren’t quite as aimless as we thought, but we certainly allow random ideas and inspirations to take over our planning. We have also found that in order to get rentals within our budget we have to book early or when opportunities present themselves.

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Habitant River near our house in Habitant, Nova Scotia

In the last few days things have turned around and we have a renewed sense of excitement. The biggest step forward is that we have secured a long term arrangement for our house. So when we leave for London we will truly begin our nomadic lifestyle and won’t look back.

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Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with our Son, Erik and Tim’s Sister, Jennifer

The weather has been absolutely perfect for the past three weeks, our blueberries are ripening and we have spent some enjoyable time with friends and family. By being back here for the past month we have learned that it is easy to slip back into the familiar routine that we had been in for the past 10 years and that isn’t at all what we want. Our time in Costa Rica gave us a brief glimpse at what we have created through our years of planning so now we want to see it through!

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Yummy!

So we say farewell to Nova Scotia with fond memories and open ourselves to an amazing adventure ahead of us when we leave on September 4th. Unlike our time in Costa Rica, which was primarily for relaxation and contemplation, the next few months will be new territory for us. We expect to be challenged, educated and amazed with our new lifestyle.

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The sky is our limit….

We really appreciate that you have followed along so far and hope you will enjoy our stories. We will continue to provide practical information on the areas we visit and express how we feel about our homes along the way and our new lifestyle. We would love to hear from you! Please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on what we are doing or experiences any of you have had from embarking on the same path.

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Parting Thoughts – Three Months in Costa Rica

It is hard to believe that we have come to the end of the first leg of our adventure. We have a much better tan, have lost a few pounds, shed a lot of emotional baggage and have accumulated innumerable fond memories from our time in Costa Rica. We are only beginning to come to terms with what it means to adopt a nomadic lifestyle but so far it has exceeded our expectations.

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We chose Costa Rica as our first stop as we wanted an opportunity to relax as well as ease into our new life. It is a country we love to visit and generally knew what to expect. What we didn’t know was how we would respond to being on the road for an extended period.

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Our condo complex in Playas del Coco

It was easy to settle into our condo at Playas del Coco and we were very happy with it throughout our stay. There was plenty of space for us, a nice pool on site, WiFi coverage was decent and it was a short walk to the beach and a small supermarket. Probably the aspect that took the most time to adapt to was the lack of privacy that living in a small enclosed complex like this affords. In the future we are going to be spending more time in apartments and other close quarters so we will get used to it.

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We were there in the shoulder season so rent was affordable. Water, internet and cell costs were also very reasonable. Electricity is expensive so that was our largest utility cost. Food prices tend to be expensive so you have to be careful what you buy and where. There are some good options like trucks selling fruit, vegetables and eggs, sale days at the local grocery stores and farmer’s markets (ferias) where they are available. Anything imported is very expensive so this is another good reason to eat local and fresh. To have a look at our monthly expense summary you can check out our Money Matters page.

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One of the aspects of staying in one place that we particularly enjoyed was being able to settle into a routine. Watching school children head to school every day, seeing the changes in the vegetation as the seasons change, saying hello and practicing Spanish with the staff at the local supermarket and experiencing a different scene on the beach every day were just some of the simple pleasures we were able to experience as a result of having time.

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We observed as every day a pair of white-winged doves constructed a nest on our roof, putting it together one blade of grass at a time.

After a week of rain around the first of June there were literally dozens of baby iguanas and lizards all around the yard and pool. We were able to watch them grow and laughed as they ate the fresh flowers around our patio each morning.

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During our stay we did use the opportunity for some great road trips, exploration and a chance to visit more of this diverse and beautiful country. We rented a car for two extended trips and in both cases we were very pleased with the quality of service and price we received.  For our trip to Monteverde we used a reasonably priced local shuttle service. There are many ways to get around and we would recommend taking the opportunity to visit as many places as you can.

We have noted most of the major areas for birding that we visited on this trip on our Birding Along the Way page. Undoubtedly the Monteverde cloud forests were a highlight for us and we were fortunate to see several life sightings including our first resplendent quetzals. The coastal areas also provided many interesting sightings.

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White Ibis

Throughout our stay, as in previous visits we were treated with respect, kindness, openness and friendship from nearly everyone we met. At the risk of offending others, we found the people of Monteverde to be especially gracious and welcoming with a sense of pride and entrepreneurship that was a delight to experience.

So will we return to Costa Rica? A definite yes, but it may  be a while. There are so many positive aspects to this relatively small country. Its biodiversity and beauty are undeniable while the friendliness of its people, the relatively good infrastructure and accessibility all make it an attractive destination for a short term visit but also a potential long term option.

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However, Costa Rica is not as cheap as it used to be. Prices for accommodation, essentials and services have risen quite dramatically in the past few years. While this places a strain on visitor’s wallets, it has a serious impact on Ticos who for the most part have to pay the same increased prices we do, and generally on a much lower wage. As tourism continues to expand, infrastructure must be put in place to accommodate the millions of visitors and funding must come from somewhere.

As with anywhere that tourism is a major industry there can be significant divides between the local communities and their visitors. In many instances Costa Rica has done an excellent job in setting aside large areas of land and marine spaces for conservation, encouraging local ownership and entrepreneurship and fostering a pride in its beauty, culture and diversity.

For our tastes we enjoy the smaller mountain and coastal towns and tend to avoid the larger areas such as San Jose and its surrounding areas, Tamarindo and Jaco. But that is just our preference and many others have found what they have been looking for in these larger towns an cities which do provide more services.

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In summary we reconfirmed that we love warm weather, a relaxed and friendly lifestyle and rich biodiversity. We also reconfirmed that we are entirely comfortable in spending our time together. By the end of our three months we felt fulfilled with what we had experienced and learned, but we also recognized that we there are still many aspects of a nomadic life that we need to get better at. Packing lighter (no surprise), better use of technology and adapting to less privacy are at the top of our list for improvements.

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Perhaps more than anything we realized that we love this lifestyle and are so thankful and excited to be able to have this opportunity. Thank you all for travelling along with us, and we hope you join us on our next adventure – we are off to Europe!

 

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Walking in the Clouds – Monteverde Part III

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The technical definition of a cloud forest is not universally agreed upon but in general terms it refers to tropical or subtropical mountainous regions where conditions allow for consistent cloud cover. This causes significant moisture to condense on the canopy which in turns drips to the plants below. These important ecosystems occupy approximately 1% of the earth’s surface and are home to an immense diversity of unique flora and fauna, many species of which can be found nowhere else.

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The Monteverde area is one location where cloud forests thrive, and provide some of the best opportunities to experience these productive ecosystems firsthand. There are currently four reserves in the area which have various levels of protection. The Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves are the most well known but there are also the private Curi-Cancha Reserve and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in the area which are well worth exploring.

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For our first hike we chose the Curi-Cancha Reserve ($14 USD entrance fee) which is lesser known, but it contains a mix of primary and secondary forests in the lower reaches, which allows for good viewpoints.

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As you venture further into the reserve you encounter mainly primary forest and gradually reach slightly higher altitudes.

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We had chosen to hire a local professional guide for our first hike and we would recommend this whenever you can. All of the guides we have encountered in Costa Rica have been knowledgeable, professional and extremely proud of the biodiversity of their country. Rafael was no exception and we would have missed so much without him.

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As you are walking through the forest there are many sounds and to the untrained ear most are indistinguishable. We have done quite a bit of birding but when we are in a new area are still unable to determine the species we are hearing. Additionally, trained guides like Rafael are able to imitate almost every bird and animal sound in the forest which can draw them close out of curiosity or to see who is encroaching on their territory.

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One of the birds we were interested in seeing was a resplendent quetzal which is one of the reasons many people travel to Monteverde. We heard one off in the distance, but even after repeated calling Rafael was not able to get us close to it. We did see several three-wattled bellbirds whose distinctive appearance and call are unmistakable. This species has the loudest call of any on earth and can be heard for over a kilometer.

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Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We spent about 4 hours on the trails of the reserve and with Rafael’s assistance we were able to identify over 40 species of birds of which nearly half were life time sightings for us. Of equal enjoyment was the great exercise in a wondrous natural setting and all that we learned of the cloud forests from Rafael. We arrived back at the parking lot just as the rain began.

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For our next hike we chose the Monteverde Cloud Biological Forest Reserve ($20 USD entrance fee) and decided to do the hike without a guide. We wanted to take our time, explore the trails and we were comfortable enough to at least hear and spot the birds and animals along the way. As well, we wanted to use the opportunity to stand astride to Continental Divide which runs through this reserve. If we were fortunate enough to spot a quetzal then that would be an added bonus.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Since we weren’t going to be with a guide we gathered as much information as we could at the main entrance. As it turned out there was a quetzal nesting area just 100 m from the entrance and we headed there straight away. We were treated to the unforgettable sight of both a male and a female feeding a young chick in a nesting box. It was a remarkable experience and one that will always remain with us. Unfortunately the sun was directly behind them so we weren’t able to get any shots as spectacular as the one we featured above.

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We set out on the 2 km long Sendero Bosque Nubosa trail that gradually winds upwards through some magnificent vegetation with very scenic viewpoints. We met few people along the way and the scents, sounds and visual features of the forest placed us in a very primeval setting, far away from the modern world.

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At the end of the trail we took another short path further upwards to La Ventana look-off which is astride the Continental Divide. From this panoramic viewpoint at an elevation of around 1280 m you are able to look across both the Caribbean and Pacific slopes. The vegetation is remarkably different at this point with stunted trees and forests sculpted by the winds giving way to the giants of the cloud forests below.

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The trail system within the park is very well marked and maintained. Given the amount of rain within the reserve it is obvious that a lot of care and attention has been given to keep the surfaces reasonably dry, even and very easy for walking. As we gradually descended along a different route the feeling of being in a different time remained with us until we arrived back at the entrance.

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During our time in the reserve we identified 15 different species of birds, including 5 life time species. Compared with the number of species identified with a guide, this is quite low, however we felt that we did not miss too many and were able to spend as much time relaxing along the way as we wanted to.

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There is a very reasonably priced ($1.50 USD) bus service to and from the reserve which we took back into town in the early afternoon rain. While we were waiting we took the time to go across the street from the entrance to a fabulous hummingbird feeding area which is free of charge. There were at least 50+ hummingbirds there and if you stood still around the feeders you could actually feel them buzzing by your head. Their colours are exquisite and we could have spent hours there!

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We were very satisfied with both of our cloud forests hikes and they solidified for us the main reason for visiting Monteverde area. The unique flora and fauna, the spectacular habitats and vistas all combine with the friendly and proud residents of the cloud forests to create an experience like nowhere else in this country with so many memorable areas. We’re already looking forward to another visit in the future.

 

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Our Home in the Clouds – Monteverde Part II

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Carlos’ version of Gallo Pinto – Excellent!

After some searching online we decided that Casa Batsu looked like an ideal choice for our 5 night getaway in Monteverde. We certainly chose wisely as not only was this Bed & Breakfast cozy and charming, but the couple who runs it welcomed us as family. Carlos was a very thoughtful and gracious host and provided us with excellent food, a wealth of information and one of the best margaritas we have ever had!

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The intimate B&B is built on the old family farm and we enjoyed the friendly relaxed atmosphere, great food, comfortable gardens and some interesting trails down to a couple of small coffee plantations.

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We always appreciate gardens and trails as we are happy to spend early mornings searching out resident birds and exploring our new surroundings.

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Our first morning we were welcomed by hummingbirds, tanagers, wrens, motmots and even an emerald toucanet.

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Almost a perfect shot

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On the “Sunset Trail” – Not while we were there.

We could tell as soon as we arrived that careful attention has been paid to the layout of the common areas and the grounds and that cleanliness was an important aspect of the service. The three guest rooms were spacious, tastefully decorated and very comfortable.

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Breakfast each morning was a visual as well as a gastronomic treat. Fresh coffee and carefully prepared fruit were the starters and this was always accompanied by a variety of freshly made local juice and a blackberry smoothie. This was followed by a hot portion that varied every morning and was always delicious!

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Another great aspect of the service provided at Casa Batsu is the personalized attention that Carlos pays to his customers. In first talking with him on the phone he quickly established what type of experience we were looking for and had a wealth of ideas and connections for us. An added convenience is that he will make your arrangements with local guides, tour companies and even the shuttles, and include it in your one final bill. This saved having to carry large amounts of cash everywhere.

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At a cost of between $80 and $100 USD per night it falls in the middle of accommodation prices in the area, but the atmosphere, personal attention and great food make the price very reasonable. We especially enjoyed Carlos’ intriguing stories, helpful advice and infectious sense of humor. We will keep in touch with him and Paula and will definitely be going back in the future for a visit and are sure we will be welcomed as friends.

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A Community in the Clouds – Monteverde Part I

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This is Part I of three posts about our recent visit to Monteverde, Costa Rica from May 31 – June 4.

We have visited Costa Rica several times but until now had never been to Monteverde. While the actual community of Monteverde is quite small and consists of about 500 residents, the larger surrounding area is generally referred to as Monteverde and includes the town of Santa Elena with a population of around 6500.

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The present-day town of Monteverde was founded in 1951 by Quakers from Alabama, USA. They chose the area for its cool climate which was suitable for dairy farming, friendly local population and Costa Rica’s abolition of its army in 1948.

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While the influence of the Quakers remains strong, Monteverde has developed into a major ecotourism destination based in great part on the strength of decades of conservation and protection of the unique cloud forests of the area.

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Getting to Monteverde is part of the adventure and can be done in a number of ways. From our base in Playas del Coco we chose to use one of the many shuttle services available throughout the country. The cost was $49 USD per person each way for the approximately 3.5 hour drive. The last hour from the main highway is about an hour uphill and offers dramatic views of the valleys and all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya. The road is often quite rough and is only partially paved so be prepared for a few bumps and watch those curves!

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We arrived in the dark and the rain around 6:30 but we immediately felt at home at Casa Batsu, which we had chosen for our stay in Monteverde. We absolutely loved it there and have decided to do a full post on it (Part II), which we will publish soon.

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As soon as you arrive in Monteverde you can sense this is a special place. Everyone we met from the cab drivers to restaurant staff to local guides were all anxious to greet us with smiles and to fill our heads with facts and information about their community and the cloud forests of which they are so proud. The street signs, sidewalks and local shops all speak to a different approach to tourism, one that from what we could see is based more on mutual respect and cooperation than we have encountered in many other places.

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A great example of this hospitality was Heyner, the co-owner of the Choco Cafe, a great little coffee shop, restaurant and gift shop combination in Santa Elena. He was busy roasting fresh coffee beans when we were there but he took the time to explain the whole process and gave us some great tips for roasting and grinding coffee. We ate a great lunch there with excellent coffee and in the end bought several bars of delicious dark chocolate which we are still enjoying!

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You may be wondering why we haven’t been raving about the cloud forests and the wonderful birding in Monteverde. Well, we were going to try and cram everything into one post but it very quickly became obvious that we would miss something and the experience of hiking and birding in the cloud forests deserve a separate post (Part III).

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The mornings were our favorite time of the day as the sun rose in a relatively clear sky and the air was fresh from the rains of the previous day. Temperatures were very pleasant and we could have actually used a long-sleeved shirt for the evenings as it was quite damp and cool. It was a far cry from the hot dry weather we had been used to back at Playas del Coco. As the mornings wore on clouds would begin to form which created ever changing landscapes and vistas.

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For the 5 days that we were there the rain was quite predictable and began near lunch, sometimes accompanied by violent thunder and lightening, often extremely heavy and it would generally start to taper off towards the end of the afternoon.

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We particularly enjoyed a typical casado for lunch one day at this small soda located in the basement of the local craft cooperative. We had just finished a 4 hour walk through one of the reserves so we were especially hungry. Most of the sodas serve freshly made juice with your meal.

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There are a large variety of attractions, accommodations and restaurants in Monteverde and we just scratched the surface during our stay. We chose to take our time and limit the attractions we visited; instead taking the time to meet as many people as we could and soak up (quite literally at times) the experience. We did do two wonderful hikes and added many bird species to our life list which we will talk about separately, but it was the overall atmosphere of the area that lingers and will remain with us. This is formed by a unique blend of the beautiful natural setting as well as the hospitality and positive attitude of the  people who call Monteverde home. We are not quite sure why it took us so long to visit, but we are certain we will be returning.

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A Magical “Mystic” Tour on The Southern Gulf of Papagayo

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At 7:30 on May 15 we walked down the beach to the main beach area of Playas del Coco to catch a boat. It was a sunny day with a light onshore breeze and the temperature was already nearing 30 degrees. We were headed out for what turned into a terrific day with Marcy, the skipper of the “Silver Bullet” who owns and operates Mystic Rides. This was also the last day that Erik and Keegan were with us before they headed back to Nova Scotia.

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After wading into the warm surf and climbing aboard, we headed out into the southern Gulf of Papagayo past the impressive looking villas which dot the hills and cliffs around Playas Hermosa and Panama just north of El Coco.

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It was a perfect day to be on the water and we were all soon enjoying ourselves immeasurably. As we settled in and got to know Marcy better it became apparent that he was an experienced and professional mariner, knew how to relate to his guests very well and took  great pride in his boat and his surroundings. In is own words he has the greatest job in the world being able to support his family doing what he loves in this dramatic and idyllic setting.

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As we steamed towards Culebra Bay to the north we experienced some of the fascinating marine life that abounds in these waters. In addition to the bird life we were treated to flying fish off the bow, dolphins chasing fish in the tidal currents off the points, stingrays jumping completely out of the water and we were lucky enough to spot an olive ridley turtle on the surface. We didn’t approach too closely but were able to get a good view before it dove.

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This isn’t the best time of year for fishing along this coast but we trolled for a while as we headed toward the first beach of the day. Erik pulled in a small skipjack (black) tuna which we released and then Keegan reeled in a larger one which we kept to try for supper. Skipjack tuna is not highly regarded by many as it has a strong flavour and needs to be bled quickly when caught, but following Marcy’s preparation advice we found it quite tasty. A few other boats were fishing the offshore ledges but didn’t appear to be catching much.

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We gradually drew closer to our first beach destination. It was a small, isolated white sand beach that offered a large rocky outcrop good for snorkeling. The tide was a bit high when we arrived but we did see a few fish all the while being observed carefully by another turtle. The calm water provided a perfect opportunity to try our hand at stand up paddle boarding (SUP). Marcy’s board was a shorter one used for riding surf as well, so we will use that excuse as to why it took a few attempts to get it right!

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As we snacked on chips and a great dip, washed down with cold Imperials (Costa Rica’s national beer) we headed out of Culebra Bay, past the upscale Four Seasons Papagayo Resort and some very expensive rental and private homes towards our next private beach. Apparently Michael Jordan has a home here.

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The snorkeling here was excellent. At one end of the small secluded cove was a large reef which was home to a great variety of fish and at least one sea snake. It was a remarkable experience to have these beautiful, pristine coves and beaches to  ourselves. The water in this area is very warm and sparkling clear.

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You can easily tell how relaxed, content and happy we all were to be in that place at that moment in time!

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Our last destination was Playa de Huevo named for its egg shaped crescent of fine white sand. We didn’t have this one to ourselves as there was a dive party having lunch when we arrived. They had a table set up on the beach with a couple of hungry coatis (raccoon-like mammals with a long snout) sniffing around and black vultures perched overhead.

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Anchoring just offshore we were able to explore the beach which had a great little sea cave, climb the cliff for a breathtaking view and relax in the warm water while letting a gentle swell bob us gently off the boat. Cold watermelon was the perfect refreshment after the hot sun and salty water.

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Reluctantly we helped pull in the anchor and headed back towards Playas del Coco. We have been on several boat tours in Costa Rica and the Caribbean but we agreed that this was one the most enjoyable we have experienced. We much prefer a small personalized trip over the larger tours that often have too many people, loud music, too much booze and usually charge much more. They can be fun if that’s what you are looking for but this way works better for us. Our hats off to Marcy for giving us a fun and memorable morning. He will customize a tour for your own interests whether that may be surfing, snorkeling, fishing  or just having a chill time. At the cost of $60 USD each we were more than satisfied with the memories we created.

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Thanks for stopping by and we’ll see where our next adventure takes us!

Tim & Anne (with guest appearances by Erik, Keegan and Marcy)

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Arenal Road Trip Day 2: Zip Line Adventure

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Since arriving in Costa Rica, we have both become early risers as it is the coolest part of the day, the light is great for photography and the birds and monkeys are always most active. This day was no exception, however we had an additional reason to look forward to it. We were going zip lining on one of the highest, longest and fastest series of cables in Costa Rica. We were all a little nervous and jittery but full of expectant anticipation.

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Breakfast was served at 7:00 in an open air buffet rancho beside the pool. The smooth jazz of Kenny G seemed a perfect accompaniment to the cool”ish” breeze, tropical smells and bird songs with which we ate a satisfying breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, yogurt, homemade bread and of gallo pinto. Gallo pinto translates to spotted rooster in Spanish and is a very common portion of typical (“typico”) Costa Rican meals and is based on leftover rice and beans.

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We had booked our tour for 10:30 and arrived early after a 45 minute drive about half of which was over a very dusty and rough road and all the while we could feel our anticipation growing. There were even howler monkeys in the parking lot trees to welcome us!

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We chose Arenal Sky Adventures based on their excellent reputation for state of the art equipment but also for the dramatic setting, length, speed and height of this zip line. There are a total of 7 cables, of which the longest is 760 m (2493 ft) and the highest is 200 m (656 ft). When you get to the parking lot this mammoth tower rises above your head and is the end point for the second to last cable aptly nicknamed “Big Daddy”. You could be forgiven for being just a little apprehensive.

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After receiving our equipment (helmets, gloves and zip line handle) we lined up with about 15 other people to head up the mountain. There was an initial safety demonstration and then we boarded the gondolas for an awe inspiring trip in itself. As we ascended 750 m (2460 ft), Lake Arenal gradually appeared below us, while Arenal Volcano emerged above the rainforest canopy. For anyone who has never experienced the wonder of walking hanging bridges, riding cables or climbing to the canopy of a true rainforest – it is an unforgettable experience. The immense size and density of the trees, the expanse of leaves and the life on top of the canopy is unlike anywhere else.

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The gondola drops you off an a platform which marks the start of a journey back to the base which takes you back and forth across ravines, far above the canopy, and eventually ends through a seemingly far too narrow tunnel cut through the trees. There is a chance for a few pictures before we begin. You can’t bring any large cameras with you for obvious reasons but we had a small pocket camera which we fastened securely in a pocket. All of the helmets are equipped to hold a GoPro video camera which can be rented ($42 USD) or you can bring your own. There is a professional company photographer throughout who takes many many pictures which you can purchase afterwards for approximately $50 USD.

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So here we are just before the first “real” cable. We have just completed a short and simple test ride from one end of the platform to another and we’re ready to go. At this point emotions ranged from severe apprehension to giddy excitement and everything in between. However once you are released on the first cable the adrenaline begins to kick in and then when you clear the trees and are suspended on what appears to be a tiny cable speeding towards the opposite side of the canyon at what seems like breakneck speed you first wonder OMG what am I doing (up) here!  Hopefully you gradually start to take in the absolute beauty, excitement and joy of the experience.

Getting to the end of each run was another experience not to forget as it seems that there can be no possible way that your body can stop in time to avoid being crushed like a bug. But everyone arrived safe and sound after every run and had huge grins on their faces. Unbelievable!

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We have to put a big plug in for the guides or “Experience Creators”. There was a group of four who accompanied us throughout the whole experience and they were all exceptionally professional, fun, personable and very responsive to the level of anxiety or comfort of each individual. Their demeanor belied the obvious enjoyment and pride they took in their jobs.

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At a cost of $77 USD per person this wasn’t a cheap morning but we both felt that it was worth every penny. The total experience lasted about 2.5 hours and by the time we reached the end of the 7th cable we both felt as if our bodies had pumped as much adrenaline as we could handle for one day. We aren’t quite the 20 year-olds that Erik and Keegan are. All four of us could not stop grinning and talking about our experience for the rest of the day – all of the three hour drive back to Playas del Coco. It was definitely a bucket list experience for us!

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Our drive back was relaxed with plenty of memories being relived and created while it was all fresh in our minds. We stopped for lunch in the early afternoon at Tinajas Arenal just outside of Nuevo Arenal. You may recognize this photo from an earlier blog as we first experienced this wonderful family operated restaurant set on a very scenic point at the end of Lake Arenal last year. As was the case in our previous experience here, the food was excellent offering typical Costa Rican dishes with an international twist and featuring mostly local organic ingredients.

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We want to end this post with another piece of advice on driving in Costa Rica. For the most part our experiences in driving here over the past three visits have been positive and allowed us to explore much more slowly than would otherwise be possible. We did make a mistake on this road trip however. We had a quarter of a tank of gas when we left La Fortuna early in the morning. Rather than take the time to find a gas station in town we just planned to fill up when we got to Nuevo Arenal about 30 kms away. Imagine our horror when we got there after lunch only to discover that the station was closed and had no gas! With the warning light on we made it to the next major town of Tilaran where we filled up but not until after about 20 very nervous minutes. In Costa Rica there are not many gas stations once you are off the main roads so it is best to keep your tank at least half full at all times.

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This was a terrific road trip and it reminded us how enjoyable having your own vehicle can be and the freedom to explore it brings. However there are many other ways to get around this diverse country so the best advice we can offer is to experience as much as you  can in the way that you feel most comfortable. There are also several great blogs such as MytanFeet and Costa Rica Travel Blog that offer expertise and advice for all.

Thanks for reading! Pura Vida!

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A Road Trip to Arenal: Day 1

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We have been in Playas del Coco now for just over a month and are really enjoying the warm (OK hot) weather, the fabulous beaches and the vibe of this coastal town. Our son and a friend came to visit us for just over a week and we decided to take a road trip to the Arenal Volcano area which we have visited before. The town of La Fortuna at the base of the volcano is a tourist hotspot as there are literally hundreds of attractions including zip lines, thermal springs, bird watching and nature tours, butterfly gardens, horseback riding and much more.

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Our main reasons for going this time were to try zip lining and to expose our son’s friend to another side of Costa Rica beyond the beaches. One of the great aspects of this country is the broad range of ecosystems and micro climates packed into a relatively small area.

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Getting around in Costa Rica can be fairly easy but you need to do a little research if you are not familiar with it. Buses are very cheap and quite efficient, at a slightly higher cost there are very good shuttle services available almost everywhere, Nature Air provides a good internal flight system and car rentals are available in most major towns. We rented a car for this two day trip and chose Vamos Rent a Car in Liberia based on a friend’s recommendation. We try to support Costa Rican companies whenever possible and were pleased with the customer service, cost and quality of the vehicle we received. We requested a Toyota Rav4 but there wasn’t one available so they gave us an upgrade to a Mitsubishi Montero diesel for the same price. The cost was $306 CAD for three days which included full insurance.

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Driving in Costa Rica can certainly be a challenge as road conditions are quite variable, the drivers are very aggressive and you need to be prepared for almost anything. In the mountainous areas we always approach each corner expecting there to be a car, motorcycle, truck or small herd of cattle in our lane. Once you are off of the major highways the roads can be quite narrow and extremely twisting as they wind up and down hills. We’ll talk about some other safety tips in our next post. Don’t let this discourage you however as the freedom of having your own vehicle is well worth it.

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We left Liberia on Monday morning and headed south on the Pan American Highway (Route 1) which is now a very nice divided 4 lane highway all the way to the bustling and usually hot town of Canas. Route 1 at this point takes you through rolling pastures dotted with the famous Guanacaste trees for which the province is named. From Canas we headed east to begin the climb up the foothills to the pleasant agricultural town of Tilaran.

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Once you leave Tilaran you soon arrive at some some wonderful viewpoints across Lake Arenal. This is a man made lake which was expanded in 1979 and is the largest lake in Costa Rica. It provides water for hydroelectricity, irrigation and domestic use to a large portion of northwestern Costa Rica. If you are fortunate, as we were to experience a clear day you will get your first dramatic glimpse of Arenal Volcano in the distance at the opposite end of the lake.

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The road then begins to wind its way around the lake offering many interesting photo opportunities. We stopped for lunch at one of our favorite little towns, Nuevo Arenal, which was created in 1979 with the building of a new dam to relocate the displaced town of Arenal. This isn’t a tourist town at all but has a fairly large expat community which seems to have adapted reasonably well to the mix of local and expat needs and services. Moya’s Place right on the main street has excellent pizza and pasta and we enjoyed a great lunch there.

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Continuing around the lakeshore, the last part of the drive to Arenal is one of our favorites. There are pleasant lake views, small brooks coming down from the hills and the lush vegetation reaches across the road in places. Take your time along this section, enjoy the views and keep an eye open for monkeys, coatis, toucans and oncoming traffic as there are many sharp corners and one lane bridges.

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After a pleasant half hour you will start to catch glimpses of the dam with more impressive views of the volcano which dominates the skyline. Wispy clouds around the peak and often plumes of smoke can accentuate the view. On this day it was very clear with only high clouds. Several small tour boats operate in this area and it is also close to the Mistico Hanging Bridges which we have visited twice and would highly recommend.

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After driving across the Arenal Dam you start to get some excellent views of the volcano from close range. The volcano is 1633 m in height and was dormant for hundreds of years, until 1968 when it erupted unexpectedly destroying the small town of Tabacon. It experienced several more eruptions but has been dormant since 2010.

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As you approach the town of La Fortuna you pass many thermal hot springs along the way. The most expensive and arguably lavish is Tabacon Hot Springs which is the site of a world class resort and spa. We visited these springs last year and they are truly wonderful. A day pass with either lunch or dinner runs about $85 USD per person. There are many other options including free hot springs in the area so it is best to check out the prices and reviews on Trip Advisor to see which one would suit your taste and budget.

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The town of La Fortuna bustles year round as it a major tourist hub. It doesn’t have a traditional Costa Rican feel to it but there are certainly no shortage of places to stay or eat and things to do. It can be quite overwhelming trying to decide which tour company to trust your precious time and money to. Again, it is best to do your homework ahead of time and decide what type of activity is best for you.

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We stayed at the Arenal Country Inn just on the outskirts of town as it promised nice gardens and grounds, the opportunity for a little bird watching, along with a bit of peace and quiet. We rented two cabinas and weren’t disappointed. Other than some very hard beds, the price of $75 CAD each including breakfast was well worth it.

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After a long day of driving we all were all thrilled to relax in the pool, soak up the paradisaical setting and cool our bodies down. We were scheduled to head off on an amazing zip line adventure the next day so we had lots to talk about over supper. We were going to try and put our two day trip in one post but as you can see we have more than filled one. Stay tuned for the exhilarating next day – coming very soon!

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Settling into Daily Life in Playas del Coco

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We have been in our new home since April 11 and in addition to being wonderfully relaxed, we have been very pleased with how well we have settled into this lifestyle. We can already see and feel positive changes beyond the obvious darkening of our skin. After some terrific Costa Rican coffee and a breakfast we usually take about a 2 km walk along the beach. How can you have a bad day  that starts out watching seabirds diving for fish while you hear waves rolling in, smell the salt laden spray and feel the sand beneath your feet?

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Fresh fruit with local cheese and yogurt. Just add granola for a full breakfast.

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Our morning walking route

Costa Rica has excellent coffee and there is a good range even in our local Mini Luperon which is just around the corner. Coffee has been grown here since the 1700s as the fertile soil, high altitude and cool climate of the Central Valley produce world class beans. Costa Rica is the 13th largest producer of coffee in the world and its export accounts for about 11% of the country’s export trade. Tours of coffee plantations are a popular tourist activity and can make for a fun and delicious day out.

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Our preferred route to town

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The main road

The mornings are relatively cool so this is when we will do any chores or run errands in the main town. The walk into town is about 20 minutes and we have a choice of the main road or along the beach. Of course we generally choose the beach path. At this time of day tour boats are loading up, terns and pelicans are fishing, parrots are chattering in the mango trees and a cooling breeze brings in the fragrance of the sea.

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There is one main street in the town of Playas del Coco with the expected souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, massage parlors, sodas and tour outlets; however there are many services in and around the area. There is a good selection of grocery stores, a clinic, police station, hair salons, cellular stands, and an organic food store to name a few. We like it as it has everything we need but isn’t overcrowded. There are plenty of good places to eat from higher end beach clubs to local sodas. The seafood here is excellent although a little pricey. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be bought from trucks at very reasonable prices.

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It gets very hot in the early afternoon so it is a great time to get caught up on our emails, paperwork or read a book. We have been taking a lot of photos for this blog and our Facebook page so there is a lot of review and editing to keep up with as well. We have been practicing our Spanish and are trying to add a phrase or a couple of words each day. There is a local volunteer group which teaches English so we will look into joining in as a way to give back a little to the community, learn some Spanish and meet  people.

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If none of those things are too urgent it’s never a bad time for a siesta!

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As the sun starts to sink slowly across the Pacific it seems like a perfect time for another walk on the beach, perhaps to dodge the waves or just enjoy where we are and be thankful for the moment. There is always something going on – kids frolicking, teenagers skimboarding, dogs chasing each other, fish jumping or people just hanging out. We also get a kick out of watching the grackles dodging the surf as they try to catch small crustaceans at the water’s edge.

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Of course what perfect beach day can end without a sunset. We have a perfect view as the sun sets directly behind the numerous small boats at anchor in the bay. We haven’t made them all but each one is different. If the clouds are just right it is a wonderfully magical moment that can’t help but bring out a sense of contentment and a satisfaction of being right where you are.

 

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We have been eating very well and feeling better than we have in a long time since we have arrived, and it’s only been three weeks! There is such a great variety of fabulous food available and locally sourced is much more affordable. We have tried several new recipes and become much more adventurous in our eating already. There are many varieties of mango trees in the area and we can often pick freshly fallen fruit which are so juicy and tasty either fresh or in salsas, salads or smoothies. They made a savoury addition to a coconut milk sauce with our fresh shrimp.

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One of the reasons we chose to start our journey here was to relax and try to get our minds wrapped around this new lifestyle. Other than some hives from the heat during our first two weeks our bodies are reacting even better than we hoped and our minds are already more clear and uncluttered than they have ever been. We are loving it so much it will be very difficult to leave! So for now we are enjoying the moments and know that we can always come back. Nos vemos amigos!

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