Let’s take a second to address the elephant in the room, shall we? Yes, I will be posting pics! Yes, it will be soon! Yes, we did absolutely use the camera Dave bragged about on FB for weeks before our trip. But he has all the pics and I want to get some of this stuff out before my mind gets all consumed with work and my memories start to go fuzzy with age.
Updated: pics are now included!
I found Kelly Creek through Trip Advisor. Our original game plan had us staying at a hotel in Puerto Viejo until we changed it all up which left us with 3 nights to fill and no hotels on the Caribbean side of the country. I knew I wanted to visit that side for a multitude of reasons but yes, number one being that Dave never made it there when he went to CR the first time so we’d be starting off with an adventure that was new to both of us! I researched Puerto Viejo and came across Cahuita, a smaller town that’s less travelled by the Spring Breaker crowds you find in Puerto Viejo plus the swimming was supposed to be better, the national park was right there, and people had such amazing things to say! What really drew me in was a review on the paella which needs to be ordered in the morning as they spend all day getting the local seafood that goes in there and making the dish as per old Spanish tradition but we’ll get to that.
We arrived at night and met the proprietor, Andres who showed us to our room which I immediately fell in love with. The walls and vaulted ceiling were gorgeous wood beams, the mosquito net although a requirement made me feel like a princess (I never grew up), the windows were plantation shutters that let all the sounds of the forest and ocean flow through our room, there were gorgeous hibiscus flowers in our towels, and the electric showerhead I’d heard about wasn’t nearly as scary as Dave had made them sound. Clarification – the water is “heated” by two electrical wires; I had visions of these wires just hanging out in the shower stream where any voracious shampooer could accidentally kill themselves by hitting the wires but that was not the case. It was an enclosed unit placed high enough out of the wall that there was no danger of my pretty little head being fried off.
After we settled in, Andres told us they had fresh shrimp they could made us for dinner – he was almost apologetic about it. Since they only have 4 rooms, they don’t run a full service restaurant as many guests probably expect and they only cook fresh food. We were so grateful for food and shrimp is one of my favorite foods in the world so we were in heaven! How can I describe our first meal there? It was so magical and over so quickly but I savored every bite. The dish we were served was beautiful – a mound of rice pilaf (the real stuff, not the San Francisco treat) surrounded by huge shrimp with the heads intact in a lovely garlicky, shrimp based cream sauce. I daydream about this meal. Andres explained to us how to suck the heads out (he’s Spanish) and the flavor was so amazing. I would normally be hesitant to suck the heads but I dove right in. They were intense, briny, garlicky, buttery, sweet, and so rich. Everything felt intensified and I’m not sure if it’s because the shrimp weren’t raised in some farm and shipped thousands of miles frozen to their destination but it could have something to do with it; or the fact that we could hear the ocean from our table; or the fact that we were finally in Costa Rica. We’ve had good meals but this surpassed so many of them; I like to think I can cook but every once in a while I come across someone like Marie-Claude, who shows me that I have only broken the tip of the iceberg. Marie-Claude is from France where food is taken very seriously, married to a Spaniard who’s mother has taught her the old Spanish culinary traditions, living in Costa Rica where seafood is abundant, fresh ingredients are really fresh, and people know how to slow down and enjoy what’s important. She’s an amazing woman and a phenomenal chef!
Then there was the dessert! How can I explain it? The chocolate was gritty, bitter, only slightly sweet, and thick poured over bananas with some whipped cream. I have never had chocolate taste like that. When we asked about it later, we learned that Adilia, who helps them run the place, makes it in their kitchen. Wait, you make chocolate? It doesn’t come from a factory? This country blows my mind. I know, I have studied cuisine but still, this kind of stuff makes me stop dead and realize that our life in America is so far from amazing (natural) experiences other cultures enjoy daily. Moving on….
Our first morning was exciting, even though we woke to bad news that the ocean was too angry for us to snorkel, we enjoyed a lovely meal of eggs (the yolks were orange!), sausage (Andres told us we’re not having ham which is the only meat on the menu because he had something better), fresh fruit (pineapple, papaya, mango, bananas), toast (French bread with pineapple marmalade and orange colored butter), and of course, coffee for Dave and tea for me. This became our morning tradition, ordering one of each off the menu and splitting it, also learning to order double the sausages because they’re so rich and so different from anything we’ve ever eaten. I’m not a morning person and not a breakfast person but they changed me. We also got a really special treat that first morning and we didn’t even know it. Roberto and Roberta, the resident alligators who live in the creek behind the hotel, came to visit along with the birds, capuchin monkeys, and iguanas. We watched Marie-Claude feed Roberto chicken feet which the large birds tried to grab, too and we enjoyed seeing the monkeys jumping around on the roof and the lizards sunning in the trees. Over the next mornings we saw a couple monkeys and Roberto once more but not all at the same time like this. We were also greeted daily and at random times by Verdi, the parrot who greets guests, has chatty conversations, and seems to really be in charge.
The first full day there, we went for a walk through Cahuita National Park and a swim in the ocean. On our hike we came across leaf cutter ants which would have been really cool had I not been wearing flip flops. For the record, this is the ONLY time I really freaked out during the trip. Dave may say otherwise but I think I held my cool except for when I had to cross a swarm of these ants which are known to bite and jumped up and down begging Dave to get them off my sandals. Oh and I screamed. I am a screamer. After that nasty incident, we made it through our hike pretty much unscathed. I did wish we hadn’t swum before because I was all wet and my insect repellant had washed off but those concerns start to evaporate when you’re surrounded by lush forest. I had never seen crabs hanging out in a forest before (refraining from making those kind of crab jokes), it was pretty neat and they were these amazing shades of blue and yellow with only one big claw that makes them look lop-sided. We had tons of lizards crossing our path (hope that means good luck!); heard more birds than we spotted; witnessed beetles, dragonflies, and butterflies going about their business. Walking along and considering turning around to head back to town and grab lunch, we passed a guy heading out who told us there were monkeys ahead so we trudged along. Wow, was it ever worth it! The monkeys were in the path, on trees nearby, and so interactive. One walked right passed me but I moved out of his way (despite Dave’s protest) because I think he was getting overwhelmed by all the people trying to get his attention. They were so cute – checking leaves for bugs, chasing each other, staring at us, and being chatty.
Once we got back, we headed south to Puerto Viejo and the chocolate museum (our hosts recommendation). We followed a guy into the museum who didn’t speak any English to find out from another girl who didn’t speak English either that they were closed – a running theme in CR on Mondays. We stopped in Puerto Viejo at the bank where you stand in a long line waiting your turn to go into a tiny room one at a time with the ATM. I didn’t feel safe even though there were guards inside but that has to do with visibly showing we just got money! In line we met Steve, a Canadian who moved to CR. He looked decades younger than his age and he gave us his email so we could contact him about buying real estate in the area since he already knew the ins and outs of dealing with local authorities and the CR rules about owning property. He warned us to stay away from the touristy restaurants which we should have listened to; we ended up paying way too much for under cooked steak and some ok jerk chicken. Driving through Puerto Viejo is the polar opposite of Cahuita; while Cauhita is primarily homes dotted with small hotels and hostels, Puerto Viejo is a long row of hotels and hostels dotted with restaurants, smoothie bars, yoga studios, and souvenir shops. We stopped at a few shops where I didn’t find anything interesting and then ended up popping into a tiny jewelry shop next to a “casino” (a small bar with slot machines instead of tables). I found a bracelet I liked with a turtle cutout on a piece of coconut, the “artist” told Dave she used a tiny saw to make the cutout which turned out to be a lie because returning to Cahuita, I saw a ton of the same bracelets. It’s ok though, I still like it.
Returning home, we waited anxiously for our paella which had been keeping Marie-Claude busy all day. Dinner started with Sangria, Andres suggestion, which was stronger than we anticipated and we were presented with a paella pan meant for two that could easily fill four starving Americans (we eat more than anyone else, am I right?). The pan was full of fresh seafood – shrimp, tiny little crabs, octopus, mussels, chicken, sausage, and so much yummy goodness. The flavors were intense; it seemed like every individual item had it’s own unique signature on your tongue if eaten separately and marrying them in bites made each bite so different. Later Marie-Claude explained to us how she learned to make paella from Andres’ mother and each item is prepared differently then combined later which allows the delicate flavors to remain intact. We couldn’t finish it, even though we tried and Marie-Claude graciously offered to save it for us so we could enjoy it the next day which we did.
Walking around town that night was particularly eventful; I wanted to check out the souvenir shops while we walked off dinner and we happened upon a fireworks show. The locals celebrate Christmas all month long with large explosive shows fired over a vacant lot from a cardboard box. The mortars were the real deal with large bouquets of sparks flying over our heads and pieces of shells floating down around us (occasionally hitting us but that’s not eventful seeing as it’s normal for me to get pelted from our view point in Foster City on the 4th of July). It was loud and festive and the locals were loving it!
The following day we drove around; we discovered we had missed the tours for the Jaguar Sanctuary in Puerto Viejo and headed to the Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita to the north of town. We got to get fairly close and personal with the sloths that have been saved and deemed too fragile to go back out into the wild. We also saw some babies and took a canoe ride around an island that formed in an earthquake. On the canoe ride we saw some gorgeous trees, tried a wild banana (crunchy, hard seeds with the same banana flavor), saw tons of howler monkeys monkeying around in the trees including a little guy showing off, hanging by his tail, and brightly colored birds.
We returned to Cahuita and enjoyed Heinekens by the beach while we hung out with Ruby and Gypsy, the resident puppies of Kelly Creek. Marie-Claude made us our left-over paella and we enjoyed a later dinner of our favorite shrimp and sangria. Our last night there, we headed out into town and ended up at a little dive with live reggae and Christmas music. Dave tried a Mai-Tai which resembled a 7-eleven slurpee (and tasted about the same) and I sang along with the music! We were joined by a sweet Australian couple staying at the hotel with us.
The next morning Andres’ friend who runs snorkeling boats offered to take us out for half price because of poor visibility but we declined in favor of a tour of the Jaguar Sanctuary. After seeing the ocean looking fairly clear later that day, I often wonder if we gave up our best chance of diving but the sanctuary was so so so worth it. We drug Jack and Emily, our new friends from Australia along and had loads of fun with the animals. We got up close and personal with a white-tailed deer named Chai who licked the salt off our hands and legs, held a toucan (who wasn’t part of our tour) who nibbled on our fingers, pet monkeys (Dave’s face got hugged by one while his tail was wrapped around Jack’s neck), and Dave became a tree for one very adventurous squirrel. We also got to see a rhinoceros beetle, sloths, owls, frogs, tadpoles, snakes, baby deer, a kinkajou, and an ocelot.
Leaving Kelly Creek was sad; I knew we had great adventures ahead of us but our hosts were so kind and it far exceeded our expectations. We can’t wait to go back. One of my goals in life is to eat a homemade meal everywhere I travel in the world, I feel like this was met here. Eating recipes passed on for generations and food made with such love and a passion for cooking is what it’s all about. I can’t wait to return and stay, spending lazy days on the beach sipping sangria and hours in the small kitchen learning how to make chocolate.