We continued to get up at dawn, and each morning we wandered the gardens looking for wildlife. Those green frogs were still everywhere.
The first tour Rickshaw had arranged for us was at 9am, meeting at Miss Edith’s in town. It was booked through Snorkeling House. A snorkeling and walking tour; most of us had assumed it’d be a walk and then a swim; cue 10 of us hurriedly changing from hiking gear into swimwear. Snorkeling is sea and weather dependent, but today was perfect.
As a poor swimmer I opted to avoid the 2 hour open-sea guided swim around Cahuita’s coral reefs; there were floatation aids, but those who used them felt nauseous. Sam donned her mask, flippers and breathing tube and slid over the boat’s edge. In pairs, their guide Kelly took them around the reef, where multi-coloured fish lived, and the occasional shark drifted by.
Sam did apply sun lotion, but not enough to be out of the shade with her back facing the sun for 2 hours. Her sunburn was bad for the rest of the holiday (she got through a whole bottle of Aloe moisturiser). Cover up when you go snorkeling.
On the boat I chatted to Fernando – the guy in charge, he pointed out the Toucan calls we could hear from the national park, and the magnificent frigate birds standing on the shore. We could also see the top of Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, usually obscured by clouds or haze. Above us clouds were perfectly positioned to create a very rare double halo around the sun, like a circular double rainbow. Fernando played Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s sumptuous “Somewhere over the rainbow” cover, and it was pleasant just watching the world go by.
The boat took us to the beach, where we decamped and prepped for a sweaty hike. But as guided tours through National Parks go, this wasn’t a traditional one. Our guide couldn’t talk at length about habitat, plant species and wildlife behaviour, Kelly isn’t one of those guides, but he did know where a lot of wildlife could be found, and he marched us between each sighting spot with purpose. Like a treasure hunt, what animal would he take us to next?
We started at an exploratory oil well made in 1910 where they discovered natural gas; there’s a hot bubbling pool where locals come and bathe. Thankfully the park wasn’t destroyed to make way for the oil industry. Just along from the well Kelly knew where to point out a brown eyelash pit viper. We gathered around to take pictures, under instruction not to get too close as the venomous snake might pounce.
On the beach we bumped into a running common raccoon. I don’t think it was the crab eating variety. Kelly coaxed it out with a plastic bag; clearly tourists have been feeding them. Kelly’s bag was empty and the raccoon left disappointed, perhaps a wise lesson.
We stopped again to look at the floor around us, if you moved quietly you could hear the earth scuttle, as hundreds of 6-inch red land crabs rushed to hide in their holes.
Using string markers placed on the tree trunks Kelly knew where to stop and find sloths; they don’t move trees too often, so you can find them again fairly easily. In one tree was a sleeping three toed sloth, in another a two-toed mother and baby; we could just make out the baby’s tiny hands. A third could be found in the branches nearby. All of them were sleeping, which you’d expect at the hottest time of day, they looked like big bundles of fur high in the treetops, surprisingly well camouflaged given their size.
Kelly was on a mission to get back, he was late for his next tour. Our last two sighting were lucky. Above us we found a troupe of black mantled howler monkeys, 7 or 8 with young. They have a horrible habit of flinging their poo at people they don’t like, so it’s best not to stand too close. They are the loudest land animal, and everyone’s visit to Costa Rica is punctuated with noisy (and preferably distant) howler monkey calls at early hours in the morning – you can hear them for several kilometres. Right now they were quiet, they mostly howl at dusk and dawn. In a tree nearby a common black hawk was sitting, patiently waiting for its next meal to wander by.
On the snorkelling and hike we befriended a lovely Dutch couple who were also travelling with Rickshaw, and by chance were staying at the same hotel. We decided to have lunch together at the beachside restaurant that did such excellent red snapper, Sobre las Olas.
At 6pm, nearing our jet-lag shifted bedtime, a local red taxi picked us up to take us to our pre-booked cooking class in Puerto Viejo. We weren’t sure what to expect, and were surprised when the taxi continued past Viejo’s tourist strip, down an unlit back road and into a man’s backyard.
Walter came out to greet us; long dreadlocks, glasses and a thick Caribbean accent, he’d be our teacher. In his kitchen we’d be learning how to cook Caribbean chicken, rice and beans. And we jumped straight in, unlike other cooking classes we’d mostly observe what Walter was doing; Sam of course was an excellent student and asked probing questions throughout, while taking notes.
We started with two chicken legs and thighs, washed in lime and vinegar and left to marinate in salt, pepper, “English sauce” (or Salsa Lizano) and some chicken stock. Walter had prepped the red beans too, boiled in a pressure cooker for 20 minutes, until they’re soft but not falling apart.
In the corner of the kitchen was a pile of fresh coconuts, their outer flesh already removed. With a small machete Walter deftly shaved off the skin, and with a grater that looked like a medieval gauntlet, he reduced the coconut to mush. It’s faster to use a blender, and after showing us the traditional way we switched; so confident in his method, Walter left the blender lid off, the spinning liquid neared the top but never splashed out. Squeezing and sieving the mush gave us our coconut milk.
Before starting with the rice, a thin layer of coconut milk was added to a pan and heated on high, it browned, condensed and released oils, coconut oil. When it was a paste we added the rest of the coconut milk with some garlic, thyme and red pepper, 3 large spoonfuls of red beans, some water and a heaped spoon of salt(!), and brought to the boil. Then the rice was added. Later we punctured a whole Scotch Bonnet chilli pepper and added it to the rice and turned down the heat.
The chicken would be caramelised; in the pan Walter left some soya oil and sugar to caramelise; “sometimes, if you leave it too long it can go black”, Walter said as Sam worryingly eyed the darkening caramel, which he seemed to leave for too long, but was ultimately just perfect. After adding the chicken, some garlic, thyme, celery leaves and some coconut milk were added to the left over marinade then poured over the now equally browned chicken and left to cook slowly.
The rice was ready, but the topmost layer hadn’t had as much moisture, so was a little underdone. Walter showed us a trick to fixing this; add some bean juice to the rice and seal the top using a plastic sheet, whatever you do, don’t stir, and wait.
We’d serve mashed plantain or green bananas with the chicken, rice and beans. For green bananas, they need to be pealed under water (their juices can stain and the skins are firm), then softened by deep frying in oil. When soft we used a plate to flatten them, and then refried. The bananas were smaller than the traditional Cavendish variety, and typically grow wild around here, Walter called it a “Creole banana”.
Walter dished up, our taxi pick-up arrived early, our driver got a plate too. Over the top we sprinkled a little of Walter’s homemade pickle – which was mostly scotch bonnet, and very spicy. Yummy.
The skies were clear on the way home, and the stars shone brightly. From our usual perspective the big dipper was upside down, while the thin slither of a new moon smiled quietly at us.