Five More Things Not To Do When You Go Out To Eat

Recently, I wrote a guest blog for Bitchy Waiter, who, in his own words, “waits tables and bitches about it”. He has over 600,000 followers on Facebook and when I was selected as a guest blogger for him I was completely overwhelmed. Read my guest blog here. The hundreds of reactions from strangers all over the world to the words I wrote made me think… maybe I should write a follow up piece! So here it is, five more things not to do when you go out to eat.

 

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One. Telling us you’re not ready to order, then waving over another member of staff minutes after we’ve left you to peruse the menu a little longer. If we’ve already checked in on you a couple of times, chances are you’re sat in our section and we’ll be looking after you for the evening. If you’re not ready to order that’s fine – but if you ask for five more minutes, that’s exactly what we’ll give you. Don’t then make out like we’re not doing our job properly – we’re not mind readers!

Two. Being inconsiderate of the fact that we’re holding hot or heavy plates or trays of glasses, and trying to hand us things, ask us questions, or not moving out of our way. If it’s not an emergency, simply looking at us will usually let us know we need to come and see you as soon as we’ve dropped off our plates or trays. If we make eye contact with you and nod, I promise we’ll be back. Stop waving, we see you. Stop shoving plates at us, our hands are full. Smile and be patient, like we are with you.

Three. Making a booking and showing up late, not showing up at all, or having markedly more or less people attend. Buy a watch, consider traffic conditions, call us if you’re running late or numbers change. You called to make the booking so you know our phone number; it’s situations like this that mean more and more restaurants don’t take bookings these days.

Four. Bringing your kids to our busy restaurant and letting them do whatever they like. A restaurant is a dangerous environment – lots of people are moving quickly and may not see your precious little one as they run around unsupervised. There are hot plates, full cups, glasses easily broken, slippery floors, and multiple other potential disasters waiting to happen. We are not your babysitters, we cannot watch your child while you go to the bathroom, and we resent it when you let your child “play” in the middle of our busy walkway. We shouldn’t have to dodge your rugrat while we’re carrying full trays; it’s enough that we have to clean up after them when they make a horrendous mess. To the few parents that clean up after their kids – thank you a thousand times, you make our day!

Five. Not leaving when you’re the last table and everything else has been cleared away. If we’ve called last drinks and everyone else has gone home, it’s time to go. We’ve been polite, we’ve helped you have a great evening (we hope), now please respect that we’d like to go home and try to savour what’s left of our night.

 

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If you’ve got any more pet peeves you’d like me to write about, send them over to lauren@nourished-spirits.com

Working In Hospitality Makes Me Hate People

When I started this blog, I wanted to write about exploring restaurants, bars and cafes throughout the world. Given my extensive experience working in hospitality I thought I’d have a deeper insight than most into this kind of thing which could make for some interesting reading. Now that I’m home (for the moment), back working in hospitality, I thought I could write about things from the worker’s perspective rather than the customer’s – hopefully reading this changes at least one person’s perspective the next time they enjoy a meal out.

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Have you ever paused for a moment, when you’re sitting inside a cosy café or a fancy restaurant, and thought about the people waiting on you?

About how their day is going, why they might be taking a little longer than you expected to get your coffee out to you? Maybe a simple thought about the fact that they’re human?

I’ve worked in hospitality for almost ten years. I see it daily. Customers thinking we’re robots, there to serve them without realising there might be reasons for the behaviour they perceive to be lacklustre or slow.

Picture this: the restaurant is virtually empty; you take a seat. The waiter appears flustered when he or she appears; you sigh because they’ve taken so long to get you your tap water. Your meal takes longer than you thought it would; you think about which review site you’ll take to to write your essay about how poor the service was when there was no-one there but you. Now think about this… The wait staff have been running around non-stop for hours. This is their fifth double shift in a row. They’re exhausted. They’ve spent day after day being mistreated by customers. People like you, who don’t stop to think about their circumstances. In the brief period between their busy lunch service and their even busier evening service, they’re quickly getting as many staff on half-hour breaks as they can. The person looking after you hasn’t had their half-hour break yet. They’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re overworked and underappreciated. And they’re there, trying to make you happy. Putting on a smile and doing their best to make your day as excellent as theirs can’t be.

Now think about this: it’s Easter Sunday, and you’ve decided to take your family out to brunch. You arrive; there are no tables available. You get angry at the host, who is already struggling with a list as long as his arm of people waiting for the same table you want. You wait twenty minutes and take a seat. You’re immediately upset that the waiter hasn’t read your mind and brought the takeaway coffees you ordered and were meant to wait for at the counter. You spend the rest of the brunch clicking at your waiter and waving them over to ask where your food is, five minutes after you order. Eventually you leave, not noticing the frustrated expression on every staff member’s face at the treatment they’ve gotten today. You leave, you go home to your extended family and the Easter egg hunt you’ve planned. You forget that the waiters and waitresses that have been looking after you all day are missing their family Easter.

Every day, the people waiting on you are going through something. Maybe their job isn’t paying their superannuation; maybe their manager is unfair to them. Maybe they couldn’t get their birthday off work, or they got told to cancel their plans last-minute and come in to work to cover someone else, again.

Maybe the next time you visit a café or restaurant, you could pay more attention to what you’re saying and how you’re acting. You could be sure to say “please” and “thank you” – it’s really not that much to ask. You could move out of the way of waiters carrying a table’s worth of dirty dishes; or help them out by moving your plates to the end of the table when they’re ready to be cleared. Don’t wait for the waiter to ask you all the same question – pay attention and order concisely. Don’t click your fingers or wave rudely; don’t yell or whistle to get attention. Wait until we meet your gaze and politely give a nod or raise your hand to indicate you’re ready to order, if it comes to that. I don’t know about other waiters, but if someone clicks at me I will serve another more polite table first, every time. Don’t get cranky at your waiter if the restaurant has run out of a particular product. In what world is it their fault? They don’t do the food ordering or prep, and even if they did, how could they have predicted accurately exactly what every customer would have wanted to eat before you arrived?

I’m almost twenty-five, and I’ll admit I’m ashamed every time somebody asks what I’m doing with my life. I’ve got two degrees and a lot more is expected of me than to work in hospitality. I come from a family of high-achievers who inspire me to do better and aim higher. I recently attended a party with a bunch of old high school friends and the regular “what are you up to these days?” questions were asked. I led with the more impressive facts about my life – I recently travelled Central America for 6 months; I have two degrees from one of the most esteemed universities in the country; I’m happily single… then the fact that I’m still working in hospitality was raised and I felt I had to make excuses for myself. The fact is, though, I shouldn’t be ashamed. It’s hard work. It’s exhausting and strenuous, it’s high-pressure and low-reward. We’re under-appreciated daily, but you know what? We make long-lasting, deep bonds with our co-workers. We’re smart, we’re witty, we’re strong. We’ve put up with more in our jobs than many other people will in their lifetime. No, I don’t want to be in hospitality forever, but I’m proud of the person I am, and I owe a lot of my resilience, strength of character and personality to my work.

To the people who are kind and considerate to their servers – thank you. You might think your small tip or polite manner are normal, but trust me – they’re appreciated more than you know.

To those who aren’t – it’s about time you realised that without hospitality staff, you couldn’t go out for your fancy brunches or get takeaway when you’re too lazy to cook. Try putting up with strangers treating you like crap for no good reason every day for a week and maybe then you’ll respect the people who are waiting on you.

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Five Must-Try Cafes in Brisbane

Have you ever had the day off work and thought – I want to try somewhere new for breakfast today, but I don’t know where? I’m here to tell you – try out one of these five (or all of them). You’ll leave happy, with a full tummy and your wallet won’t be too much lighter!

One. Bonsai Botanika, Brisbane City

This nifty place is bigger than it appears, with multiple levels of comfortable seating. The rustic, wooden look is warm and welcoming and the kitsch astroturf and fake plants actually work here, bringing life to this funky inner-city joint. Some online reviews comment on how expensive the food is – I found the menu to be varied and certainly not exorbitantly priced. There are options that are around $20 for breakfast, which is fairly average for Brisbane these days and certainly acceptable in the middle of the city; I found a delicious breakfast option for only $8 which I enjoyed thoroughly. There are several other cheaper options, all of which sounded well worth trying! I ordered the toast with lentils and guacamole, at the recommendation of the waiter, and he was 100% right – it was absolutely delicious. The bread was super fresh and soft, the toppings were fantastically flavoursome, and it didn’t take long to be prepared and served. I couldn’t have been happier! I also enjoyed one of their incredible coffees, which are consistently tasty and lovingly made. With the current chill in the Brisbane air, I opted for a mocha over my usual iced latte, and I was certainly not disappointed. The coffee is served in one of two sizes of glass, with the couverture chocolate served on the side, in a beaker that makes you question why you ever bothered going to chemistry class in school when surely this is the only appropriate use for such a vessel? You can choose between dark, milk and white chocolate – I think I might have to come back enough times to try them all! The service was phenomenal, with the gentleman working when I visited having a very welcoming attitude and giving excellent recommendations. I will definitely visit again when I find myself in the city and would highly recommend others do the same!

Bonsai Botanika

Open:    Monday – Thursday, 7am – 5pm

Friday, 7am – 9pm

Saturday – Sunday, 9am – 5pm

A: 109 Elizabeth Street, Brisbane City

P: (07) 3210 0059

I: @bonsaibotanikabrisbane

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Inside Bonsai Botanika, Brisbane City

Two. Dovetail on Overend, Norman Park

Tucked away on a quiet little residential street is a busy little café, which has been open on both of the public holidays on which I recently visited. The level of care the staff have for their customers is extraordinary and rarely found in hospitality these days, which makes me want to return time and time again. When I popped by on Good Friday, the café was so busy people were lining up for tables. I was only there for takeaway coffees for my girlfriend and myself, and the short wait was well worth it. They also do fresh juices, and I partook in one of their breakfast shots while I waited. I was nervous that because of how healthy and nutritious it purported to be, it would just taste like a spirulina shot and leave a bad taste in my mouth (no matter how good I felt afterwards). I was so very wrong. The shot contained a whole bunch of fresh, healthy ingredients, including wild blueberries, which meant it actually tasted delicious and left me wanting more!  While I was waiting for my coffees, I read through their menu, and I couldn’t help but start to salivate. My goodness! The food sounds truly sensational and I will be back to try it as soon as I can. Supporting small local businesses is always a factor for me when I’m choosing where to spend my money, and I will be spending more of it at Dovetail on Overend, that much is clear!

Dovetail on Overend

Open:    Tuesday – Friday, 7am – 1pm

                Saturday – Sunday, 7am – 2pm

                Monday, Closed

A: 85 Overend Street, Norman Park

P: 0435 224 407

W: http://DovetailOnOverend.com (only available on tablets and smartphones currently)

I: @dovetailonoverend

F: www.facebook.com/DovetailOnOverend

Three. Little Sista Cafe, Coorparoo

Go. Just go. Don’t hesitate, don’t dilly-dally. You will not regret it. I have been a semi-frequent visitor to Little Sista for years, since it opened up around the corner of a house I used to live in, and it has only improved with time. The incredibly decent portions of food are mouth-wateringly delicious, beautifully presented, and well-priced. The coffee is great, the smoothies are wonderful and inventive, the baked goods are tempting and tasty. On top of all of that, the décor is lovely, with indoor and outdoor seating. The staff are super friendly and there is parking readily available both under the café and in the streets nearby. Little Sista is easily one of my favourite Brisbane cafés, I don’t doubt it will become one of yours too!

Little Sista

Open:    Daily, 6:30am – 2pm

A: Shop 5, 148 Chatsworth Road, Coorparoo

P: 0421 130 564

W: http://www.littlesistacafe.com/

I: @littlesistacafe

F: www.facebook.com/littlesistacafe

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Iced dirty chai latte at Little Sista, Coorparoo

Four. Lady Marmalade Cafe, Greenslopes

Anyone who doesn’t know about this place has had their head under a rock for a good few years now. I used to visit Lady Marmalade before I moved into the area and lust after it when I was elsewhere – after moving to Coorparoo, I visited at least once a fortnight and took anyone and everyone I could there with me. It’s a tiny place, so you may have to wait briefly for a table, but you won’t regret it. The servings are perfectly sized – not so big you end up wasting half of it, but not so small you would ever leave hungry. The prices are incredibly reasonable; cheaper than most other equal-quality cafés I know of. And if you do still have room in your tummy once you’re done with your main course, you can indulge in some of the amazing sweets they have on offer. There are always plenty to choose from and you can’t possibly make a bad choice.

Lady Marmalade Cafe

Open:    Monday – Friday, 7am – 3pm

                Saturday – Sunday, 7am – 2pm

A: Shop A & B, 269 Logan Road, Greenslopes

P: (07) 3324 2480

W: www.ladymcafe.com

I: @ladymarmaladecafe

F: www.facebook.com/ladymarmaladecafebrisbane

Five. Billy-Max, Bulimba

I visited this place for the first time recently, when one of my best friends and I were wandering through Bulimba wondering where to stop in for a good coffee and a cute friend-date. We passed on the multiple places along the main stretch of Oxford Street, noticing that they were super busy and loud as was to be expected in the middle of a busy weekend day. We thought we’d passed by all of the cafés when we came across this cute little place, and decided to give it a shot. Their cabinet of baked delicacies looked incredibly inviting, but when my friend decided to save room for lunch I thought I’d better follow suit. I’ll be back to correct that error another day… The coffee was great, though it did take a little longer than expected given we were the only customers at the time. I’ve read reviews that the service tends to take a long time, so maybe don’t head there if you’re in a rush. That said, I have no qualms with a place taking a little while if the end product is delicious and I have good company (or my laptop) to entertain me while I wait! Given it’s a little bit out of the heart of Bulimba I feel that this place misses out on a lot of the custom the other places get whether they want it or not, just because of their location. I’d love to see more people going for a longer wander to visit Billy-Max and let me know their thoughts!

Billy-Max

Open:    Monday – Saturday, 7am – 4pm

                Sunday, 7:30am – 4pm

A: 1/124 Oxford Street, Bulimba

P: (07) 3395 6011

F: https://web.facebook.com/www.billymax.com.au/

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Breakfast Croissant at Little Sista Cafe, Coorparoo

5 Things Not to Miss in Puebla, Mexico

One. Lucha Libre

I had no idea that I’d enjoy las luchas as much as I did.

Originally I assumed it was going to be like wrestling or boxing, or maybe a combination of both. Either way, I’m not a fan of violence and don’t tolerate watching it happen very well at all. Luckily, I decided that when in Mexico one should do as Mexicans do, so I thought “what the heck, I’ll close my eyes if it comes to it”, paid my 100 peso (~AUD$7) entrance fee, and in I went. And I couldn’t be happier that I did. There’s no real violence, it’s much more of a show involving theatrics and stunts and humour than anything else. There’s a lot of skill to the moves performed, and it’s extremely entertaining.

Every Monday night you can see los luchadores at Arena Puebla, Ave. 13 Oriente 402, starting at 9pm. Tickets cost between 90 and 200 pesos; I strongly recommend buying at least the 100 peso tickets.

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Los luchadores doing what they do best! 

Two. Eating ice cream in the park

At least once during your stay in Puebla, make your way to Parque del Carmen. The park itself is a great place to people-watch, with novice skateboarders practising, shoe shiners everywhere, families walking their dog or children learning to ride bikes, a lovely big fountain in the middle, and many people enjoying the sensational ice cream that can be bought right next to the park. If you’re not sure what flavour you want (and there are many!) you can get as many tastings as you like (from my experience); and at only 20 pesos (~AUD$1.40) for a big cup of two flavours (mediano size), it’s great value. My favourites are jamaica (hibiscus) and tejocote (a small orange fruit that tastes like applesauce). An added bonus to this park is the beautifully decorated church right next door that you can admire from a distance as you eat your delicious treat.

You can find Parque del Carmen on 16 de Septiembre between Calle 15 Oriente and Avenida 17 Oriente.

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Delicious hibiscus ice cream – YUM! 

Three. Visiting Los murales del barrio de Xanenetla

There is a whole suburb of Puebla, north of the zócalo, that is decorated with incredibly beautiful street art. I had no idea it existed until a local teacher showed me around, and I’m so grateful he did. Warning – there is quite a lot of walking to be done, so wear good walking shoes! You won’t regret spending your afternoon wandering these amazing streets and alleyways; make sure you have plenty of memory and battery left on your camera because you will definitely want to take lots of photos!

You’ll find this enchanting space starting at Bulevar 5 Mayo, where it intersects with Calle 4 Norte.

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One of the many incredible pieces of artwork found in this jaw-dropping neighbourhood full of talent expressed on walls

Four. Learning about the history of the famous Cinco de Mayo battle at Zona Histórica de los Fuertes

A decent walk out of the centre of town, Los Fuertes is a beautiful area filled with monuments commemorating the incredible history of Mexico, particularly in relation to the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862. There are several museums, fountains, cafes, lakes, and an incredible view over the magical city of Puebla. Budget a day for this – the walk from town is at least 40 minutes; you’ll want to spend a good while wandering around the historical zone; and you can wind your way wistfully through El Barrio de los Murales on your way back, too.

To get to Los Fuertes, ask anyone about Centro Cívico 5 de Mayo Los Fuertes; or you can usually just ask about Los Fuertes and someone will be able to direct you.

Some of the museums there are only open Tuesday through Sunday, so don’t schedule it in for a Monday! General admission to the Museo de Sitio, Fuerte de Guadalupe is 50 pesos (around AUD$3.50), but on Sundays you can enter for free. Each of the several museums has its own admission price, so be prepared for that.

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The Historical Zone

Five. Trying some of the local delicacies

Puebla is known as the gastronomic capital of Mexico, and for excellent reason. The food is sensational, varied, and unique. Once you’ve left Puebla, you’ve left behind the flavours, scents, and experience of eating typical comida poblana (Pueblan cuisine). If you’ve journeyed so far out of your comfort zone as to be in Mexico, make sure you continue that journey. Try things on the menu, the names of which you can’t understand. Trust locals when they say they want to take you out for tacos, and you end up at the dodgiest-looking place you’ve ever seen. Stop in at that place you’ve walked past that smelled so good you couldn’t help but salivate. Live, eat, enjoy – the only thing you’ll regret is not trying enough!

For more information about what to try in Mexico, check this out.

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My favourite meal in Puebla – chilaquiles con mole y huevos at Cafe Milagros

 

Twin Fin Hostel in Bocas del Toro, Panama – A funky new accommodation option for adventurers

On the eighth of February, 2017, an exciting new accommodation option opened up in Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama. It’s rustic, minimalist, stylish and funky, and it’s called Twin Fin Hostel.

When you walk in to the hostel from either of its inviting entrances, you find yourself intrigued and wanting to see more. On one side, you’ll find a lovely outdoor beer garden, with a small bar offering cheap, ice cold beverages on a hot day. On the other side, you’ll find reception, where a member of the small, personable team will welcome you with a smile. The staff are all passionate and knowledgeable about their workplace and the vibrant town in which it is located, and are happy to answer any questions you might have.

Scattered around the brand-new hostel are gorgeous artworks, many by artist Ernesto Mago (find him on Instagram: @ernesto.mago). Adding to the funky feel of this nifty little place is the blue-white-brown colour scheme, reminding you of your proximity to the incredible Caribbean Sea just a short walk away.

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A huge wall mural by Ernesto Mago

Upstairs, you’ll find a deck with a sitting area, a library, and a fully equipped kitchen. Once they’ve added a few more comfy seats to the equation you’ll have a perfect upstairs chill-out space for guests. You’ll also find the dormitories on this level, with 3-bed, 4-bed and 8-bed options. They’re working on providing private rooms soon, so stay tuned for that development.

The rooms are simple, with fans and windows for cooling, and plenty of room for your backpacks. One big bonus is that they don’t only provide bunk beds – they also have twin beds in the rooms, so if you’re lucky, you might be able to grab one of these for your stay, and enjoy the comfort of not having to worry about a bunk-mate.

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The three bed dorm

Almost all of the dorm rooms have lockers, varying in size. In the bigger dorms with more beds, the lockers are big enough for a small backpack or laptop and other valuables; in the smaller dorms there’s room for a camera, passport and purse. You should bring your own lock for these lockers – though there are a few available to borrow, there aren’t enough for everyone.

The three bathrooms don’t have hot water, but most people don’t find that to be much of an issue in a place as warm and humid as Bocas del Toro. On the plus side, you can enjoy fast, reliable wifi throughout the property, and breakfast is included with every booking! For your convenience, I asked what breakfast was, and you won’t be disappointed – pancakes, fruit and coffee every morning from 8am to 10am! There’s night-time security for your safety, and the hostel even allows you to have guests join you in their beer garden! Beers are super cheap at only USD$1.50 each, and in the near future the hostel is looking to stock more drink options in their bar. On top of all of this, you can even get your laundry done right on the premises, for only USD$5 per load.

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Twin Fin is decorated with plenty of cute little touches like this!

The whole property is large, open, bright and airy, which means you can’t help but feel happy and relaxed no matter where you spend your time. There are plenty of common areas to hang out in, which provides every opportunity to meet fellow backpackers and strike up conversation about your travels; plus, there’s a bike rental place right across the road (though it’s not the cheapest, so you might want to ask around before renting).

The hostel is still working out a few kinks that come with being so new, including making sure breakfast is ready on time, and improving their sound proofing. At the moment, because of the rustic design, it’s easy to hear other guests walking around no matter where in the property you are. Make sure you bring earplugs to ensure this isn’t a concern for you – there are plenty of reasons to stay for these few small sacrifices!

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There’s a book exchange for readers

The centre of Bocas Town is a short walk away, where you’ll find restaurants, shops, a park, the bank, and transport to anywhere you want to go; but Twin Fin is far enough away from the hubbub that you don’t have to worry about missing out on a good night’s sleep because of all of the noise.

Twin Fin’s ratings are currently sitting above 9/10 on booking.com – visit them and find out why!


The best way to book at Twin Fin Hostel is to send them a message on their Facebook page, or you can also check them out on booking.com.

A bed in their 8-bed dorm will cost you USD$13 per person per night.

To stay in their 4-bed dorm you will be paying USD$15 per person per night.

If you want more privacy, you can stay in their 3-bed dorm for USD$17 per person per night.

Each of these options includes breakfast.


Check In: From 11am

Check Out: 10am

A: Avenida Norte, entre la Calle 4ta y la Calle 5ta Isla Colon, Bocas Town, Panama

P: +507 760-8134

W: www.twinfinhostels.com

I: @twinfinhostels

F: https://www.facebook.com/twinfinhostel/


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Disclaimer: I did not personally stay at Twin Fin; but I did spend time there speaking to one of the managers, Nina; and interviewed two of my good friends who stayed two nights. I was treated to a tour of the hostel and given answers to every question I asked. I did not receive any form of compensation for writing this article; I simply wanted to help out a new hostel in this beautiful part of the world.

Volunteering at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center – Tips & What to Expect

 

In late February, I made my way to the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center (CRARC) in Alajuela, Costa Rica. I was excited to be volunteering my time to such a great cause as looking after Costa Rica’s native animals, and had heard great things about the Center from many other tourists. Within a day of beginning my 8-night stint there, I understood all the great things I had been told. Within three days, I understood some of the negative things I had been told; and by the end of my stay I had discovered new aspects of the Center – some that will make me smile for years to come, and some which cast a dark shadow over my time there.

Given how many people volunteer at the Center every month, I thought it might be a good idea to write about what you should really expect when heading there. Don’t get me wrong – I loved most of my time at CRARC and if I could redo my trip, I would definitely still include my volunteering there as a top priority. I met some of the most amazing people I could imagine and have formed what I hope will be lifelong friendships; and I was able to in some small way help some of the animals, whether it be by feeding them, sitting with them to provide them companionship, or even just with the money I paid to be there.

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A basket full of young sloths! 

Cost & Organising Your Volunteer Experience

Every volunteer pays USD$30 per day for their bed and three meals a day, with no further payments required, which is quite reasonable in comparison with some other volunteer organisations in Costa Rica. As I mentioned in my post about getting to the Center, you should know before going any further that you do not need to organise your volunteering through any organisation other than CRARC itself. I have heard of several other volunteers who paid one of the many organisations you can find online to send them to CRARC. In every instance I have heard of, the volunteer pays significantly more than they need to, for nothing extra, and the money goes straight to the organisation rather than to CRARC. To save yourself wasting money, all you need to do to volunteer at CRARC is contact Bernal Lizano at “belcocr@gmail.com”, telling him the dates you want to volunteer (at least one week is required).

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One of the many inspirational quotes you’ll find at CRARC

Insurance

You will have to buy your own travel insurance before you leave your home country – make sure it covers any out of the ordinary activities you might be doing on your trip. Although it is highly unlikely you will fall ill or get injured during your time at CRARC, it’s not worth the risk. As my mum always told me, “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”.

Rules

Before you sign up to volunteer at CRARC, it’s important to know that there are a few rules, though nothing out of the ordinary. Once you arrive and commit to the amount of time you will be staying, you won’t get a refund for changing your mind partway through. You can usually extend your trip easily though, if you find yourself enjoying your time too much to leave. You can’t drink alcohol on the premises, but there is a bar not too far away. You obviously are not permitted to take illicit drugs on premises, and you should only smoke in designated smoking areas. You are meant to be back at the Center by 10pm every night, as the gates are meant to be shut and locked at that time. This doesn’t always seem to be the case, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You can find more guidelines on the CRARC website.

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It won’t be long until this sloth is released back into the wild

What to Wear and What to Bring

When I arrived at the Center, I quickly noticed that, contrary to the website’s instructions, most volunteers were wearing flip-flops and shorts, rather than proper work boots and long pants. I don’t recommend wearing flip-flops; even though it’s warm, there are plenty of ways you could injure yourself without proper footwear and you should do what you can to protect yourself. That said, you don’t need anything more than your normal everyday runners or sneakers; work boots aren’t necessary so don’t bother lugging a heavy pair to Costa Rica just for your time volunteering. As for long pants, they’re only necessary to avoid the incessant biting that you will undoubtedly receive from one bug or another. A few volunteers told me that the strange bites I was getting were from grass flies, and there are of course mosquitos around as well. Given the heat, most of us just put up with the bites and wore shorts every day. You don’t feel the grass flies, but you will end up covered in unsightly bites, which look like a circle of discoloured skin with a spot of blood in the middle. I have now been away from the Center for almost a week and most of my bites have faded away to nothing, so I would definitely recommend wearing shorts instead of long pants, at least in the dry season. I can’t speak to the wet season as I haven’t met anyone who volunteered at CRARC during that time.

Another tip – you’re not allowed to wear sunscreen or insect repellent into the animal cages, for their safety; so if you burn easily, definitely consider bringing long-sleeved very lightweight tops and pants. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t bring sunscreen and insect repellent – you’ll still need them during your time off; the sun in Costa Rica is unforgiving and so are the mosquitos!

Don’t forget a hat, either! Bring your own towel, you will need it; and a water bottle you can easily refill and bring with you on your tasks throughout the day. I also brought two battery packs to charge my phone or camera overnight; the dormitories and common areas do have power sockets but not enough for everyone, or not conveniently located for your night-time charging needs.

The CRARC website has a list of what they recommend you bring; most of it is good advice, although I recommend at least factor 50 sunscreen, and a head torch with a red light would be much more useful than an ordinary torch. Check out their list here.

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Part of the vibrant common area

What to be Wary of

On to a more serious topic – there are no lockers at the Center, so you need to protect your valuables however you can. Make sure you bring a lock for each of your bags. I can’t stress this enough. When I arrived at the Center, I was under the impression that every volunteer was there for the same reason, and would all respect each other and the animals immensely. It turned out that this was not the case, much to my extraordinary disappointment. Several volunteers smoked marijuana both on and off the premises; and got drunk every couple of nights, resulting in loud late-night returns from the pub, and rough hangovers. Some volunteers didn’t bother showing up to their shift at all, and stayed in bed all day instead. Now, I don’t care what people do in their time off – if you want to have a few drinks or mellow out with some recreational drug use, that’s your decision; but when it starts to affect other volunteers and the Center in general, it’s gone too far.

Most abhorrently, and the gravest show of disrespect amongst volunteers, was the theft. A few days after I arrived, two fellow volunteers had some of their belongings taken, including watches and sunglasses. Some items were returned later, some weren’t. Over the next week or two, there were quite a few further reports of money (hundreds of dollars in total) and personal effects being stolen, sometimes while their owners were in the shower or asleep. It seemed clear that the thief or thieves were volunteers, though to my understanding little action was taken to determine who was responsible and ensure the return of the stolen items. There are currently no lockers at the Center, so if you are so unlucky as to volunteer at the same time as someone selfish enough to steal from others, it is completely your responsibility to ensure your belongings are always locked up securely.

This all said, and my complete disappointment and anger at the actions of this person or persons adequately expressed, I am not saying that you should not volunteer at CRARC. Apart from this dark cloud, the rest of my experience was blue skies.

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The dormitories in the background and signs pointing to happiness in the foreground!

Animal Interaction

During my time at CRARC, I was lucky enough to be able to enter the marmoset enclosure and sit with Evo, who will sadly never be released as he was kept as a pet and is not native to Costa Rica. I sat quietly and offered him company if he wanted it, which it turned out, he did. He came curiously over to me, and jumped on my head. After a time he came down onto my lap and tried nibbling on my camera case. We had a lovely time together, and I will never forget this incredible opportunity. This inspired me to join the task another volunteer had set for himself; finding out the back-stories of each of the animals in order to make it clear to future volunteers which animals need socialisation as they will never be released, and which animals should be left alone so that they have a better chance of being released. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of confusion at the Center at the moment in regards to this, and other things; hopefully over time everything can become more organised and clear, and the time volunteers are donating can be put to the best use possible. The Center could do with some improvements in efficiency and clarity of instructions, but I was inspired daily to see fellow volunteers taking initiative and beginning much-needed projects themselves, in their time off.

I should also mention that many of the volunteers I had the pleasure of becoming friends with had expected there would be more animal interaction during their time volunteering at CRARC. The “Volunteer” page on the CRARC website states that volunteers will have the opportunity to help with physical therapy for a one-armed sloth, or teach baby marmosets how to climb; it also infers that volunteers will be able to touch baby sloths by helping to weigh them. It’s important to know this is not accurate. Some members of the vet team are able to take part in activities like these, but everyday volunteers without veterinary experience are not able to touch sloths at all (for the animals’ own health), and interaction with other animals is kept to a minimum. Sometimes while cleaning the howler monkey cage the monkeys will jump on you and tug on your hair, but you are never to instigate contact with them. The same goes for any other animal. Salima, a beautiful female porcupine, loves people and will often climb on you when you go in to change her water or feed her in the evenings; Evo, a marmoset, might jump on your head and check for food, or run along your arms (he also bites, so be careful!). However, any interaction you do have with animals is strictly on their terms, so don’t expect to touch any animal while you are there. You may well finish up your time without having had any physical animal interaction at all, so prepare for this, and just be happy in the knowledge you still get to get closer to a sloth or a howler monkey than any of your friends have been!

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Evo the marmoset having a rest on my shoulder

Your Tasks

At the Center, volunteers do almost everything. They cut up food for the animals, feed them, check their water, clean their enclosures, even build new enclosures and create enrichment activities. They help the lovely kitchen staff to prepare meals for everyone at the Center, they sweep up piles of leaves to add to the compost pile, they round up the chickens at the end of the day. The veterinary team is largely made up of volunteers, who help the animals in ways regular volunteers can’t – they feed orphaned baby opossums and squirrels, they take infant sloths out for daily exercise, they heal wounds and medicate sick animals. If you have medical experience, particularly veterinary experience, feel free to ask the veterinary team if they need help – they often do. This said, please don’t pretend you have experience you don’t, just to get closer to some of the baby animals – this has happened before, which resulted in the deaths of several animals who were incorrectly taken care of by inexperienced people.

The Benefits

As a reward for your hard work (and the USD$30/day payment), you are given accommodation in one of five 12-bed dormitories, which are comfortable enough and certainly more comfortable than some other dorms I’ve stayed in during my travels. You are given three meals a day, and can use the pool whenever you have time off. Breakfast usually consists of pancakes and fruit, or gallo pinto, eggs and fruit; and always coffee. Lunch is usually pasta or rice and beans, with some form of sauce, and salad; always with delicious freshly made juice. For dinner, there is often rice and beans with sauce, or sometimes burgers, nachos, or pasta. With every meal there is a vegetarian option, but make sure you tell the volunteer coordinator when you begin your time of any dietary requirements you have. Most volunteers end up getting snacks for the time in between meals, as hard work often results in hungry people! There are a few shops, one within a half-hour walk, and the others a short taxi drive away (which you can arrange through the Center).

On your days off (one per week), you can hang around the Center if you like, or take a trip away. You can organise trips through the Center, which can work out relatively inexpensive if enough of you are going. I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of five women who all went out on a day trip together to Poás Volcano, Doka Estate Coffee Tour, and a beautiful waterfall. The minivan cost us USD$220, which we split between us; plus the entry fees to each place (USD$15 for the volcano; USD$22 for the Coffee tour, or USD$14 for a student; USD$8 for the waterfall). We had our driver for the whole day, so we were able to stop off at the bank and shops when we wanted or needed to, too. Don’t be afraid to look up things online yourself, if you don’t want to do one of the activities CRARC offers; they can call you a taxi to go wherever you need to go and you can do whatever you like from there. If you are staying more than a week, I believe you are normally free to put all of your days off together and take a longer trip rather than just one day away at a time.

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A beautiful waterfall we visited on our day off

Overall, I wouldn’t take back my time at CRARC. I can’t believe how exciting it was to be so close to such exotic animals, and have the time to watch them interact with each other and sometimes people. I enjoyed every activity, even shovelling the animal waste, because it is crucial for the animals’ happiness and wellbeing. I am, however, so very glad that I had locks for each of my bags, and that I was put into an incredible group filled almost entirely with people just as enthusiastic and motivated as I was, and with only good intentions. My whole experience there would have been very different in a group with different dynamics, and I feel very lucky to have worked with the people I did. I can only hope that the people going there with any intentions other than good ones are somehow screened out and denied the possibility to volunteer there; or asked to leave once it is clear they don’t intend to put in the work they signed up for, or are violating the agreement they signed on entry.

If you have any questions about volunteering at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center, don’t hesitate to contact me.

For more information about the Center, including how to get there, check this out.

 

Getting To The Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center From Anywhere In Costa Rica

If you’re planning to spend some (or all) of your time in Costa Rica volunteering at the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center (CRARC), great! It’s an amazing experience and you won’t regret spending a week or two there. A tip before you get any further in your plans for this experience: you DO NOT need to organise this through any organisation other than the Rescue Center itself. You will be spending unnecessary money for a service that, to my understanding, provides you with nothing extra. Of the often exorbitant amount of money you spend, only USD$30 per day goes to CRARC for your bed and three meals a day, the rest is kept by the organisation you work with. To volunteer at CRARC is as easy as emailing Bernal at “belcocr@gmail.com”, telling him the dates you want to volunteer (at least one week is required), and letting him know if you need a pick up from the San Jose airport (and if so, what your flight details are).

The prices for this airport pick up service seem to differ, so make sure you get an accurate quote for your pickup and save or print the email regarding this before you arrive in Costa Rica. One friend was told it would be USD$30 and the driver charged her $45; it could be because her flight was a late evening arrival but I imagine the price increase could be avoided by having evidence of a quote from Bernal. I heard that one volunteer at CRARC was charged over $100 because he wanted to pay in colones (Costa Rica’s national currency) and didn’t know anything about the exchange rate, so when he was told it would be 60,000 colones, he simply paid it before doing the conversion and realising he’d just paid about USD$110! Make sure you know the exchange rate before paying in colones, and bring a calculator with you (this goes for every payment in Costa Rica, not just at CRARC).

If you are coming from elsewhere in Costa Rica or simply want to save money by taking public buses to CRARC, it’s not as hard as it seems. From my experience, you will need to catch a bus to Alajuela city and then the bus from there to CRARC. Getting from the airport to Alajuela is easy; and to my understanding you should always be able to find out how to get from wherever you are in Costa Rica to either San Jose city centre or San Jose airport (SJO) in Alajuela very easily. From either San Jose city or airport, jump on a bus that stops in Alajuela. The ones that leave from the airport (and I assume from the city) will have their last stop at a bus station in Alajuela, and the buses themselves should be red and black. Ask the driver if he’s going to Alajuela if you’re not sure. My trip between San Jose airport (Juan Santamaria International Airport) and Alajuela cost 500 colones (about USD$1 or AUD$1.20).

Once you arrive at the bus station in Alajuela, you need to make your way to a different bus station, from where the buses to Cebadilla leave. Below is a map of the station you will arrive at in Alajuela, and the station you need to leave from. It’s not far to walk at all, but it’s easy to get lost!

Marked Maps Turrucares

Thank you Google Maps! 

The bus from Alajuela to Cebadilla leaves from a corner of the bus station; you can enter this station (that look something like a parking lot) from Calle 8, which is the street you should enter once leaving the Alajuela bus station. Once you get off the Alajuela bus, walk away from the direction you’ve just come from, through the station, and exit onto Calle 8. Then turn right, cross the first street (Av. Central Juan Lopez del Corral), and continue until you see a bus station on your left. The station you want is in the parking lot opposite this (on the same side of the road you should be on already). Walk into the corner of the lot, you will see a small sign saying the words “Cebadilla” and “Turrucares” on it, and the bus to both is white. I asked three people for help getting to the Turrucares bus station and found that not everyone knows this stop as it’s a very small stop to a small destination. More people recognised “Turrucares” than “Cebadilla”, too.

Marked Earth Turrucares Map

Another view of the journey you will take, thanks to Google Maps

The bus to Cebadilla leaves at 5:20am, 7:00am, 8:00am, 10:00am, 12:00pm, 2:00pm, 4:00pm, 5:00pm and 6:30pm. Make sure you ask the driver if he is going to Cebadilla. If he is, make sure you ask him to stop at the Rescue Center. You can try the name of the centre in English – “Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center”; or in Spanish – “Rescate Animal”. The bus should cost you 535 colones and will take around an hour. The bus driver should drop you right outside the centre.

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The sign outside the Center

If you have just missed a bus to Cebadilla and you don’t want to wait for the next one, another option is to take the bus to Turrucares (these come more regularly) and get a taxi from Turrucares to the Center. The taxi driver will likely need to know the name of the Center in Spanish, so remember to say “Rescate Animal, por favor”. This taxi ride won’t take more than about 10-20 minutes, and cost me 2000 colones (about USD$3.60 or AUD$4.75). The problem with this is Turrucares is a small town and it may not be easy to come across a taxi. Additionally, because it’s such a small town, the taxis aren’t marked and just look like a normal car. It would be best to call one or ask someone you trust to call one for you.

To get from anywhere in Costa Rica to San Jose or Alajuela, try looking at these websites:

http://costa-rica-guide.com/travel/transportation/bus-schedule/

http://thebusschedule.com/cr/index.php

Generally speaking if you’re staying in a hostel, with any luck someone should be able to direct you towards the correct place and time to take a bus to San Jose or Alajuela, or possibly some other places. When I travelled from Manuel Antonio to the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center, I asked the receptionists of my hostel and they told me how to get to Alajuela (I had to catch a bus from Manuel Antonio or Quepos to the airport at San Jose, then change to a bus to Alajuela town centre), and from there Bernal at CRARC had given me some information on how to get from Alajuela to the Center.

I got a bit confused with my journey to CRARC, so I am hoping this will be a much-needed and hopefully very helpful resource for future volunteers or visitors to the centre. It’s not as hard as it seems and you can save a lot of money by taking public buses rather than a shuttle!

El Trapiche Coffee Tour in Monteverde, Costa Rica

If you love coffee as much as I do, a coffee tour in Monteverde is a must-do item to put on your bucket list! After doing a bunch of research and asking a few people who had done both of the main coffee-chocolate-sugarcane tours here (Don Juan, and El Trapiche), I decided to do the El Trapiche tour. It’s a family-owned business and the reviews on any and all review sites are absolutely glowing; as it turns out, with good reason!

The tour costs USD$33, which includes being picked up from and dropped off to your accommodation; an extensive explanation about coffee, sugarcane and cacao; and quite a few tastings. The guide I had, Jairo, was incredibly patient, polite and knowledgeable.

Along the way we got to taste a multitude of things, including a raw coffee berry we picked off the coffee trees ourselves; guaro made on the premises; sugar syrup, taken straight out of a vat where it was bubbling away, dipped into cold water, and formed into a thin, chewy, very sweet wafer; sugarcane, peeled and chewed to extract the juice; sugar syrup again, this time rapidly stirred to aerate it until it formed a hard ball; raw cacao bean; roasted cacao nibs; crushed unsweetened cacao; chocolate with freshly crushed cacao; lemonade made from brown sugar grown and processed on the premises; black coffee made traditionally from coffee grown on the premises; and arracacha.

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An arracacha plant

The Tour

We started our tour learning a little about a few plants we came upon along the way to the coffee plantation, including banana, plantain, macadamia, and arracacha.

We learned that sugarcane is related to bamboo, and originally came from India, which was news to me! Among the interesting facts we learned about sugarcane was the fact that it matures after about a year, when it should be cut down for use or it will die. The roots of the plant keep living and a new plant will sprout after the harvest. Only the main trunk of the plant is useable for human consumption; the leaves and other offcuts are often fed to oxen who work on the plantations. We saw sugarcane growing, and then two ways of extracting the juice from the cane – the old-school oxen-powered press (called a trapiche), and the newer water-wheel. We saw the juice cooking to thicken into syrup, and then we were split into groups to stir oxygen into the syrup until it thickened into a solid. These hands-on elements of the tour really made it stand out and made it so much more fun and interesting than expected!

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A trapiche in action

From sugarcane we moved on to coffee, where our guide talked us through and showed us most of the process from the plant to peeling, drying, separating, and roasting the beans. We learned about the different ways of processing coffee, and the differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee. Apparently Arabica coffee has a much better flavour and is much more popular, but Robusta is (as its name suggests) much more robust and easier to grow; plus it has more caffeine. Costa Rica only produces 1% of the world’s coffee, but it is the only coffee-producing nation in the world that exports 100% Arabica coffee, with no Robusta coffee sold for exportation. We also learned that espresso, although tasting stronger, actually contains less caffeine than other ways of preparing coffee that involve more water, such as percolated coffee or using a French press! Almost all of our group was fascinated to learn this, myself included!

We moved on to cacao at the end of the tour, where we saw a plant growing, and then learned about the process of fermenting, drying, and roasting cacao, to turn it into the product most of us know and love more than any other – chocolate!

As it turns out, coffee was originally introduced from Ethiopia to America, and there is now more coffee grown in America than Africa. Conversely, cacao originated in America; but there is now more cacao produced in Africa than the Americas! In fact, the country that produces the most cacao in the world is Côte d’Ivoire!

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A cacao pod growing on a cacao tree

The Tastings

The coffee berry was surprisingly sweet; you chew the flesh off the berry and then discard the bean within – a raw coffee bean is not too tasty, and it’s very hard. The guaro (which the guide himself described as moonshine) turned out to be about 60% abv, and actually tasted nicer than the most widely-known guaro brand in Costa Rica, Cacique. In case you’re wondering, guaro is a clear spirit made from sugarcane, very similar to white rum. It usually sits around 30% abv. El Trapiche only makes guaro for samples for people attending their tours, and does not sell it.

The two types of sugar syrup we had (both in liquid and solid forms) were obviously very sweet; as they were made straight from real sugarcane syrup that had just been pressed, they were caramel in colour and tasted quite a lot like molasses. They were so much more flavoursome than the sugar syrup you might be used to seeing in bars, which is made from refined white sugar, which has had the molasses extracted and had therefore lost that complexity of flavour. Biting into a stick of sugarcane was something I had never done before, and it was really interesting to taste the flavour of sugar as it changed from its original, purest form, to a cooked form, to an aerated version of the cooked form; and compare all of these to the sugar we are used to having in our kitchens at home.

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Sugarcane syrup after being manually aerated

When it came time to learn about cacao, we were given a cacao seed from the inside of a cacao pod to taste. It’s covered in a kind of substance that you are told to suck on, and it tasted to me so much like lychee I was astounded at the resemblance. The inside of the seed doesn’t taste like too much at all, surprisingly. Once it was roasted, however, we tasted some cacao nibs (which are extracted from inside the roasted seed), which were quite bitter, but not as bad as most of us in the tour group had expected. The next stage of tasting was the roasted cacao nibs, crushed into a paste. This was awful. It was terribly bitter and my tastebuds absolutely did not care for it! The next step more than made up for it, though! We were given freshly made chocolate, which was the cacao paste mixed with milk, and then sugar. It was delightful; I couldn’t believe the difference between commercial chocolate and fresh chocolate made from scratch – yum!

Arracacha looks like a celery plant, but it is only the root of the plant that is eaten, usually chopped up and cooked with mashed potato, spices, and meat; then served on small tortillas as a taco. We were told that these are usually served at special occasions, like weddings and birthdays. At the end of our tour we were given one to try, which was really lovely! We had these alongside the lemonade, which was far too sweet for me, but it was very interesting to taste the difference between lemonade made from scratch with brown sugar processed on the premises, and lemonade bought in the shops – they are absolutely nothing alike. The coffee we were given was amazingly smooth, and naturally sweet, which was a lovely surprise.

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A traditional Costa Rican coffee-making contraption – you put the ground coffee and hot water in the top and let it drip through; it makes for delicious coffee!

After the two and a half hour tour and tastings, we were shown to the shop, where we could taste more coffee, and buy any products we liked. I tasted each of the coffees on offer, and was amazed at the difference between them. There were also body products which used the plantation’s coffee; chocolate; liqueurs; and a few other souvenirs for sale. We made our purchases and were on our way back home. Seven hours later, I am still totally buzzing from the enormous quantity of caffeine and sugar I consumed today, and still totally impressed with how incredible the tour was! I would definitely recommend spending a morning there, and I would come back again!

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Sugarcane

El Trapiche Tour

Tours Available:    Monday – Saturday, 10am and 3pm; Sunday, 3pm

A: Carretera Monterverde a Tilarán, Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica

P: (506) 2645-77-80 or (506) 2645-76-50

E: reservaciones@eltrapichetour.com

W: http://www.eltrapichetour.com/index.html

F: https://www.facebook.com/El-Trapiche-Tour-114997261844220/

11 Tasty Delights to Try in Mexico

Mexico is undoubtedly one of the culinary capitals of the world. The food is full of flavour, diverse, and cheap! Here are some of my favourites from my two months there.

  1. Cafe de Olla – Coffee with cinnamon, piloncillo (unrefined Mexican cane sugar), and sometimes orange peel. It’s very sweet, quite strongly flavoured, and a very interesting twist on your morning coffee!
  2. Chilaquiles – This dish is like nachos, but better! It starts with a base of chips (like nachos), and is then covered in sauce of your choice. Usually your choices are salsa verde – a green sauce based on tomatillos (which are a Mexican member of the tomato family, but smaller, with a papery husk around them, and quite tart in flavour), with chili and other spices; salsa roja – based on red tomatoes, with chili and other spices; or mole (my personal favourite; pronounced “mole-ay”) – a phenomenal sauce traditionally involving over thirty ingredients, including several different types of chili, chocolate, and spices. The chilaquiles usually come with shredded chicken or fried eggs, avocado, slices of onion, and a crumbly cheese. I often enjoyed this incredibly tasty dish for breakfast/brunch in my beautiful temporary hometown of Puebla, always with mole and huevos (eggs) – yum!!

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    Chilaquiles con mole y huevos

  3. Esquites – a cup of corn kernels, served with mayonnaise, chili powder, chili sauce, and lime juice. The corn is traditionally boiled in salted water, and then sautéed, before being scooped into a polystyrene cup and topped with whichever toppings you choose. Beware of the chili options: they are HOT!
  4. Mezcal – an absolute must-try for those over 18 in Mexico! Mezcal is an agave-based spirit, commonly misunderstood as a worse or cheaper version of tequila. In fact, there are many differences between the two, and mezcal ends up being a much more diverse and interesting spirit. Tequila can only be made from one type of agave, mezcal can be made from many. Mezcal can be smoky, earthy, sweet, spicy, or a combination. It’s incredible, fascinating, delicious, and my new favourite spirit! Start with espadín; it’s the most common and will give you an idea of whether or not you like mezcal.

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    Different mezcales from Oaxaca

  5. Agua de sabores – Sweet, flavoured water. You can buy a large cup or an enormous cup, always for a very cheap price, and there are tons of different (really interesting) flavours. My absolute favourite is agua de jamaica (hibiscus, pronounced “ha-may-ca”), which is tart but sweet and always delicious and refreshing!
  6. Mexican cerveza – You might have tried Corona or Sol, maybe even Negra Modelo; but you have to try Indio, Bohemia (their Oscura dark beer is lovely!), and any others you come across!

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    Delicious Indio beer

  7. Tejocote – This is a delicious small orange coloured fruit, it looks like an apricot, but tastes like applesauce! In Mexico it’s really quite common, and you can find it in ice-cream form (a MUST try), or whole cooked fruit in syrup from street vendors, usually served in a cup for ridiculously cheap prices. It quickly became one of my favourite fruits; so different to anything we have at home and an absolutely sensational treat!
  8. Chile en nogada – This traditional dish consists of a whole poblano chili stuffed with various ingredients; mainly fruits, spices, and often shredded meat; then topped with a walnut-based sauce and pomegranate seeds. It is a renowned traditional dish from Puebla, and the dish is interestingly made up of the three colours of the Mexican flag – the green chili, white sauce, and red pomegranate seeds. It’s best to try this in season, as the dish is far tastier and more fresh when eaten in August and September (from what I’ve heard). I was able to find a restaurant serving them while I was there in January, and had to give it a try. It’s amazing how the flavours complement each other, but it was too rich for me, and would be best for two people to share as a starter to get an idea of the flavours but not feel overwhelmed at the end.

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    Chile en nogada

  9. Chocolate caliente – Hot chocolate; it’s best if you can try this in Oaxaca where the best chocolate in the country comes from. Bonus points if you can watch it being made in the traditional way – with a large spoon that looks like an enormous honey dipper, rapidly twirled in a large jug of hot water or milk, until the chocolate has melted and mixed in. The hot chocolate tastes totally different to anything I’ve tried before, and was addictive, delicious, and perfect to warm up on a chilly Oaxacan evening!
  10. Crema de mezcal – These creamy liqueurs are the texture of Baileys, and come in many different flavours. If you walk through the main streets of Oaxaca, you will hear offers of “mezcal o crema de mezcal?” extremely often. It’s worth trying a few; the flavours can be really interesting and tasty! I prefer standard mezcal, but it was interesting to try this drink I’d never heard of before!
  11. Quesillo – This is a stringy white cheese, made in Oaxaca. It’s totally unlike anything else, and is amazing! Salty, a little rubbery, but totally delicious when melted and served on a torta (sandwich), taco, or any of the other many things you can try it on!

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    A bowl of quesillo – in the background is the strips; in the bowl is the aftermath of pulling it into thin strings

There are many different kinds of food and drink available in Mexico that you won’t find anywhere else; the basic rule of thumb is that you should try everything! Particularly food or drink traditionally found in the region you’re in – there are many. In Puebla, there are several different types of sandwich, and several different types of bread; you should try everything you can! Tortas are cheap, filling and delicious; cemitas are a type of sandwich served on an eggy bread roll similar to brioche; you also obviously have to try tacos, and everything else!

One tip: if you’re not a huge chili fan, the phrase “sin picante, por favor” is crucial – “without chili, please”.

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Blue corn tacos being prepared with quesillo and meat

Delicious Ice Cream and a Bright Pink Tricycle

Today, sitting in one of my favourite spots in Puebla, it hit me – I’m in a beautiful part of the world, almost as far away from my home as I could possibly be; eating hibiscus gelato while the winter sun warms my back – I am so lucky. Yes, I’ve been through a lot lately, and it’s been difficult, and I can’t express how many hours (days) I’ve wasted crying and feeling sorry for myself. But here I am, still standing, still breathing, still enjoying the incredible flavours of Mexican food, with tickets booked to one of my Bucket List countries in less than two weeks. I smiled, for the first time in a few days, thinking of how life works in funny and mysterious ways, but with any luck, it is working, and it will all work out in the end.

I watched a tiny little girl cycling around the beautiful fountain in the middle of the park, with her grandfather steering a handle attached to the back of her tricycle. Every now and then, her grandfather let go, and the little girl circled around helplessly until he took the handle and aided her to get back on her path again. Sometimes she would get stuck in a rut in the cobblestone pathway and wouldn’t be able to get out by herself; again her grandfather would come to her rescue, usually without her asking for help. Every time she needed it, she accepted it, and was on her way to happiness again. I suddenly realised why I was so fascinated by this little girl. The situation resonated with me for a reason well beyond what I realised I’d been subconsciously thinking about.

Four years ago today, my siblings and I lost our mother. She was always the person we would each go to when we needed help, especially for emotional guidance. Without her, I didn’t know who to go to, so I didn’t go to anyone. Like the little girl on her tricycle, without help, I went round and round in circles of depression and confusion and anger, and got stuck in many a rut. Even when people offered me the help I desperately needed, I usually refused, and pretended everything was alright. And I’ve regretted that ever since. I still haven’t healed properly, and I still get stuck in ruts every now and then, or let myself fall terribly off my path. But not anymore. I’ve learned to ask for help. I’ve learned to accept when someone reaches out and offers it. I’ve opened up, I talk, I cry, I don’t bottle it up so much anymore. I’m starting to learn to let people lead me back to the path I should be on, and it feels good.

A beautiful, very dear friend of mine once told me that when we are children, we feel a lot more than most adults do, and we make decisions based on how something feels. As adults, many of us learn to think and ignore our feelings in favour of making decisions based on logic and thoughts. This isn’t always a bad thing, of course; if we always made decisions based purely on feelings, we would be in trouble. However, it may be that we are also getting ourselves into trouble by always making decisions based on a process that involves over-thinking, stressing, worrying and ignoring our instincts or feelings. We need to make decisions based on a healthy balance of both. And I’m learning to; I’m starting to overthink a little bit less, and beginning to worry about the things I really need to, and not about everything there is in the world to worry about. I’m focusing on what I have to be positive about – and there’s a lot. I’m letting people steer me back to a healthy, happy path; and pick me up when I’m in a rut I can’t get out of alone.

When I got on the plane to Mexico, I never would have thought I’d end up eating ice cream in a park, alone. But what I realised today was, there are a lot of lessons to learn from this experience. And I’m surprised and delighted that I learned one of them from a little girl and her grandfather, and a bright pink tricycle.