Thursday, May 31, 2012

La Selva Animal Preserve in Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica - 5-31-2012

La Selva Aniimal Preserve in Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica

Do you like wildlife photos? Do you like animals? If so, then you need to make visiting La Selva Animal Preserve part of your trip to Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula. The preserve will hold different animals than when I visited, of course, as their current holdings are released to the wild and as other animals are brought in. You can be nearly certain, however, to see many turtles, plenty of iguanas and an alligator or crocodile whenever you visit.

Green Iguana at La Selva Animal Preserve, Playa Carrillo
La Selva Animal Preserve in Playa Carrillo accepts animals injured in the wild as well as wild animals held illegally as pets. The preserve nurses these animals back to health and, if held as pets, socializes them with other animals in preparation for their release into the wild. The preserve receives animals from all over Costa Rica, and I saw several animals that were not native to the Nicoya Peninsula.

Margay at La Selva Animal Preserve, Playa Carrillo
When I visited in a rental car with several friends from Casa Brian in Playa Samara in late April 2012, we were given a tour by the woman who has run the preserve for years. The entire tour took 45 minutes (the preserve is small) and covered the names, origins, and habitats of each animal in residence. We started the tour near the preserve's entrance. Our guide showed us numerous mice, rats and frogs, each in their own spaces. The frogs were noteworthy for being particularly large, though they weren't very active during the day. After the frogs, we were shown several long snakes, all of which slept through my picture-taking. The tour moved on to a local bovine (like a pig, but bigger, browner and covered in fur), and then to several small leopard-looking cats, called margays, in large cages. One cage contained a mother, Maya, who paced restlessly, and her cub who playfully scratched at one of my Canadian friends when offered the top of his hand. From there, we were shown several colorful toucans and a parrot. The parrot didn't talk, but he seemed friendly enough.

Fat Squirrel at La Selva Animal Preserve, Playa Carrillo
From there, we were shown the fattest squirrel I had ever seen, sharing a cage with a lazy, sleepy tree sloth. If you've never seen a tree sloth, they seem to wear a built-in smile. This one was white and maybe three feet long from hand to foot, though he never rose from his sleeping basket. The squirrel was kept illegally as a pet and was being put on a diet (seriously!) at the preserve before being released back into the wild. After this unlikely pair of roommates, our guide showed us several kinds of owls, bats and nocturnal birds. The bats were quite inactive, hanging peacefully from their cage's ceilings. Likewise, the owls stayed in their cubby holes, or rested on their perches.

From there, we were shown the Iguanarium, which was full of emerald colored lizards sunning themselves on leaves and rocks, and the separate turtle habitat which must have had nearly three dozen small turtles hidden in ponds and in holes carved into cinder blocks, like turtle apartments.

American Crocodile at La Selva Animal Preserve
American Crocodile at La Selva Animal Preserve
The last stop on the tour was the crocodile pit. A single American Crocodile was held in a large concrete pool covered with water-borne plants. The crocodile came out of the water only when offered a whole chicken from local supermarket. He scarfed it down quickly then disappeared back into the water. He did pose for a few pictures, though, before leaving.

La Selva Animal Preserve, Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica
Once the tour was over, our tour guide invited us to stay as long as we liked. We stayed another 45 minutes taking pictures of the animals and flowers. We also inadverteantly disturbed a fire ant nest...bring some bug spray! The flowers at the preserve were beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange, and their leaves were the most verdant green I'd ever seen. Even if you're not interested in animals, the botanical photos you'll take are well worth the price of admission.

Find La Selva Animal Preserve by taking the road that leads south through Playa Samara. Follow the road out of town, past the various sodas and stores, past the small primary school on your right and into the deserted Playa Carrillo. At the second bridge in Carrillo, follow the dirt road up into the hills for about three minutes. La Selva Animal Preserve will be on your left -- you'll see a couple signs for it. Admission is $15, but includes a tour and covers a return visit in the evening when different animals are active. Please note that the evening visit must be on the same day as your daytime visit, otherwise you will have to pay another $15 entrance fee.

Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica
 From Playa Samara's main street, the journey is about 15 minutes by car and about 40 minutes by bike. Playa Carrillo is gorgeous when it's deserted, but it's only deserted during the week because Carrillo is a really popular Tico beach. Saturdays and Sundays, especially during high season, are packed. I recommend you visit La Selva between Monday and Friday so you can take pictures of Playa Carrillo when it is empty and at its most beautiful.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review of Sheriff Rustic in Playa Samara - 5-22-2012

Sheriff Rustic in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Sheriff Rustic is a small "soda," the Costa Rican term for a small, locally owned restaurant, right on the beach in Playa Samara. Unlike the beach bars in town like La Vela Latina, Locanda and Lo Que Hay, Sheriff Rustic is open only for breakfast and dinner and drink service. Also unlike those places, Sheriff Rustic has an authentic, easy feel to it that says in no uncertain terms, "this is how Ticos vacation."

Sheriff Rustic in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The soda serves local fare like beans and rice, casadas (meat, beans, rice, plantains and sometimes fresh fruit), fresh fruit, etc. and tourist food like hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken and similar fast food offerings. Burgers with fries are about $5, hot dogs go for $4. Traditional Costa Rican casadas go for between $6 and $7, depending on the meat you order. An Imperial is $2 and they serve it in a cup. I loved the fried chicken here. For $5, you get either a breast and wing or a thigh and leg, plus a pile of French fries and a mixed green salad with oil and vinegar dressing. The chicken was golden brown, juicy and seasoned to perfection -- flavorful, not salty. It's such a good deal for $5. I've heard the burgers and casadas are good too, but I stuck to the fried was that good.

Sheriff Rustic in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
Sheriff Rustic sits underneath an awning and is further shaded by the branches of several huge old trees. Both provide a welcome respite from the day's heat. The dark brown, heavy wooden tables and dark brown sand floor give the restaurant a rustic, beachy feel, as does the line of surfboards propped up against the tree right in front of the restaurant. Particularly strong high tides sometimes come up almost to the restaurant itself. Eat here during high tide and you can listen to the pounding waves while watching some of the best local surfers do their thing. Conversely, eat here during low tide and you're treated to a parade of expats, tourists and locals walking the wide beach as the waves lap lazily against the sand 100 yards away from your seat. In either case, the soft salsa music playing in the background really brings home the fact that you're vacationing in a beach side paradise.

Sheriff Rustic in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
Find Sheriff Rustic by walking Samara's main street all the way to the beach, and then turn right at the sand. Walk about 50 yards and you'll see its tables and chairs behind Coco's Surf School. If you've reached Tutti Frutti, Bar Tabanuco, or the grass campus at the Intercultura Spanish School, turn around because you've gone too far down the beach.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Life Is Amazing - 5-17-2012

View from San Jose Airport in Alajuela, Costa Rica

I'm sitting in the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica looking out at green hills and grassy plains while I wait for my flight to take me back home to Los Angeles. I've just spent a month in one of the most beautiful, gentle countries in the world visiting two old friends and making plenty of new ones. Even if I never see the new ones again, I'll always have my memories of them and so they'll always be with me...even if only a little bit. And as if that isn't enough, my parents are picking me up from LAX at midnight so I don't have to ride a shuttle home with strangers.

This is my Thursday.

My life is amazing.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review of La Vela Latina in Playa Samara - 5-16-2012

La Vela Latina in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

La Vela Latina is an upscale, loungy beach bar in Playa Samara, Costa Rica. It was my favorite place to eat and one of my favorite places to grab a beer alone or with new friends from Casa Brian. Several rows of dark wood tables surrounded by low riding plastic Adirondak chairs provide ample seating on the sand. Just watch out for high tide because the tide sometimes laps up to the outermost chairs. Multiple large trees with thick canopies provide shade for the beach seating. Dogs commonly wander through the beach seating, and sometimes inside too. Relax though, they're friendly and are accustomed to tourists petting and feeding them. La Vela's front opens up creating a nearly seamless transition from beach seating to the dark wood floor, tables and chairs of the bar area proper.

La Vela Latina in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Even on a pleasant afternoon where tourists and expats alike sit outside and throw back Imperials to the pounding surf, you can usually find a table to yourself. There's plenty of seating inside too. If you can, get the first row of tables next to the wooden rail that separates the outside seating from the inside. Most of those chairs lean back nicely and rock a bit. Add in the downbeat trip hop or mellow reggae La Vela usually plays and you've got a relaxing spot to watch the waves, grab a bite or wait out an afternoon thunderstorm. I've done all three there and loved it.

La Vela Latina in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Of all the restaurants in town, I found La Vela's to be the most tasty, but also the most expensive. The menu is standard tourist fare including hamburgers, nachos, wraps, a steak, and plenty of exotic mixed and blended drinks. La Vela's burgers were too expensive (gor next door to El Ancla for nearly identical burgers for cheaper) and the nachos are more generous at Coco's Mexican Restaurant, but La Vela's Popcorn Chicken was awesome at $8.25 and includes a pile of French fries and a mixed green salad. Give it a try. La Vela runs 2-for-1 mixed drink specials every night of the week from 5PM to 7PM. Every Saturday around 5PM, La Vela also offers free sushi that you can eat off of bikini (and sushi) clad women.

From the beach at Samara's main street and looking into town, the easiest way to find La Vela Latina is to walk up the main street and take the first right. Walk to the end of this street past the tourist kiosk and Super Samara market (both on your left) all the way to the end of the street where it turns left. Instead of following the street left, turn right into the gravel parking lot for Locanada and La Vela Latina. La Vela is the restaurant on the right (and is also the one that does not have the sign that says "Locanda"). You can also find La Vela Latina by walking along the beach to the left (if facing towards the ocean and away from town). Walk past the first two beach bars on the left (Gusto Beach and Lo Que Hay). You'll shortly come upon three beach bars in a row. La Vela is the middle one. At night, look for its burning tiki torches. During the day, look for the sign advertising sushi.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review of Casa Brian in Playa Samara - 5-12-2012

You should stay here. Really.

In 2009, I was going to stay here for four days and stayed for 19. That's how amazing the atmosphere here is. This time, I stayed for a full three weeks before moving to my other friend's hostel (post is forthcoming) to support her business. Casa Brian's owner, Brian, is a late 50-something Canadian ex-commercial fisherman, brewer, wild mushroom picker, logging camp cook, and God knows what else. He's almost deaf in one ear, so don't freak out if he's yelling at you. He's not angry; he's hard of hearing.

Brian himself is an amazing man with too many funny, tragic, adventuresome, and interesting stories to count. You may ask, “are his stories real?” The answer is yes...he's lived a more full and interesting life than damn near anyone you've met. Even better, he tells his stories with such detail and aplomb you'll think you were right there with him traveling Morocco, on a fishing boat off the Queen Charlotte islands, or going door to door in Southern California.

Never in my life have I stayed someplace where so many cool, open, interesting, relaxed people congregated, only to leave and then be replaced by people equally as cool, open, interesting, and relaxed as them. When it's full, Casa Brian's residents barbecue and party together like every night is Saturday night. When the Casa is slow, it feels easy and relaxed like a Sunday morning.

Dinner with friends at Casa Brian in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The other thing awesome about this place is that I have always met people here who were somehow directly related to the purpose of my trip. It happened last time and it happened again this time. Three years ago, I was desperate to feel free and I wanted people who could help me get there. Brian himself is one of the most freedom loving people I've met and I don't know how many hours he and I would talk about where I've been and where I wanted to head in my life. On that trip, I also met someone who strongly encouraged me to pursue my ideal life, words that carried me through the subsequent three years, and helped bring me to where I am today. This trip, I met several Brits and Canadians involved in non-traditional medicine and healing, Costa Ricans who taught me about unconditional love through their stories about missionary work in Africa, and seven awesome people from Vancouver (seriously, half of that city must be traveling in Costa Rica right now) with whom I took surfing lessons, barbequed and visited an animal sanctuary. And of course, I spent many afternoons philosophizing with Brian himself on the nature of love and freedom on this trip.

Yeah, you should stay here.

Casa Brian in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Now, logistical details...Brian has three private rooms that sleep two. These go for $35 per night for one person and $45 per night total for two people. He has two dorm rooms, one sleeps five and the other sleeps six. Dorm beds go for $17 per night. Included in your stay is an all you can eat breakfast of the freshest and sweetest fruit you've ever eaten, toast and jam, and beans and rice. On Sundays, Brian makes banana pancakes. Yum! Four hammocks, one couch and a communal dining table make it easy to make new friends.

Casa Brian in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The property is about one mile outside of downtown Samara. The easiest way to get here is to walk to the end of Samara's main street, turn left at the beach, walk along the beach for about one mile, walk past the last hotel this far out of town (Las Brisas Del Pacifico) and follow the path that runs past Las Brisas Del Pacifico until it turns into a dirt road. Casa Brian will be on the left side of the dirt road. It has a white metal gate and a small sign that says “Casa Brian.” Contact Brian at You won't be sorry. He's also in the current Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica.

Just don't stay too long in the private rooms. I'll be back soon and I do enjoy the private room Brian puts me in.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Clement Part 2 - 5-5-2012

Sunset from Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The sun touches the horizon and sinks beneath it. Purple and navy replace soft orange and lavender.

“Where do you live in Paris,” I ask. Clement smiles sweetly as she describes home. She lives in a picturesque quarter of Paris – a flower shop in the ground floor of her apartment building and a bakery next door. A grocer 100m from her front door means she doesn't need to leave her little city within a city. “There is a park 300 meters away from my apartment. It is very nice. In the summer, children run, people eat...”

“And sleep?” I tease.

She smiles again. “Yes, and sleep.”

The sky is dark now, the sun gone and Samara's lights blinking alive. I ask about the boyfriend she mentioned offhandedly at La Vela Latina the previous night.

“How did you meet your boyfriend?”

“I met him in New Caledonia. He was the friend of a coworker. We were friends for one month, just friends, and then we decided we like each other.” She sips her beer.

Clement fell in love with a New Caledonian local who was 20 years older than her with two kids aged 18 and 25. Clement and he professed their love for each other when they were in New Caledonia. “It's complicated,” she tells me softly. “He says he will come to France but I don't think so. His children are in New Caledonia. When we talked yesterday, we talked only about what we did in the day. I tell him I love him and he does not know what he wants. How can you be 50 and not know what you want?”

She continues, “there is another woman who is trying to come back to him. I don't like her, I am very jealous. I call and she pick up the phone and she treats me like his friend.” It's complicated,” Clement tells me again, softly.

She stares out at the night, her voice barely above a whisper.“I am on this trip for myself, not for him. So I do what I wish. I want to dive, so I go dive.” She is going to visit a few other spots in Costa Rica before moving onto Panama, Nicaragua, Belize and perhaps someplace else. She has two months before going back to France, two months to find closure on her trip.

She tells me more and I listen. The talks quietly of her love for her boyfriend, their past and the confusion of their future. She tells me about the diving she wants to do and I wonder if she'll find peace or an escape if she just visits enough beaches. When she stops speaking, we sit in silence together for a long while, sipping in our beers and the burgeoning night before departing.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Clement Part 1 - 5-4-2012

Ocean view from Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Clement was French, from Paris. Her blond hair and blue eyes complemented her graceful body. I thought she might have been a dancer. She was a nurse. Clement most recently worked in New Caledonia (French Polynesia to Americans) for six months.

It was nearly sunset by the time she and I walked through town and up the hill to Barracuda on Sunday evening. Clement kept to herself at Casa Brian. She was self conscious about her English but was talkative once comfortable with someone. I thought she had a pretty accent. Clement went diving most of Saturday. We went for drinks at La Vela Latina that evening, then I walked her part way to the hostel before I went into town for dinner and to enjoy Samara's night life. This afternoon, Sunday, I invited her to Barracuda to take pictures of Samara with me. Our conversation drifted from empty small talk to childhood nostalgia to complicated heartache as the afternoon advanced to evening, then darkened to night.
Downtown Samara from Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The sky is a palette of pastels, pink and lavender in the west, blue with a touch of purple in the east, as we arrive at Barracuda's upper patio. We both take some pictures then settle into stools across a glass table. "Cheers," I say and we touch beer cans.

“Do you have brothers or sisters,” I ask.

“I have one brother,” she tells me.

“Were you close growing up?” I ask the question a couple different ways because she does not understand, then she answers.

“We were very different when we were young, and he was three years younger than me,”' she explains between sips of her Imperial. “Now we are...” she gestures with her fingers, placing one far apart from the other, then bringing them together. “How do you say...not distant, but...,” she pauses.

“Close,” I offer.

“Close. Yes. We became closer as we got older.”

A gentle breeze drifts through the upper patio. “Did you have pets growing up, or now?”

“I had a cat before I left France. I love cats. When I move to New Caledonia, I gave my brother my cat to watch but he ran away. I was very sad.” She pouts to bring home the point. “My brother and wife's son, what do you say in English?

“Your nephew.”

“Yes, my nephew like to pet the cat and chase him but my cat like to sit and sleep. He did not like so he ran away.”

“Chat noir?” I ask.

“He was black in the body, and had white on his...she gestures to her hands and looks at me for help.”

“Yes, paws. He had white on his paws.” She pauses. “I miss him. And you? Did you have cats or dogs?”

“I had fish and a couple parrots. I tried to teach the parrots to talk but they would only speak parrot,” I say. She smiles.

“Yes. I had fish too. All they did was swim.”

“What does your brother do?”

Clement's younger brother works in construction. “He builds everything...government, houses, he can build anything,” she explains. He married a Cambodian woman, a secretary in her home country. She speaks little French and so does not work. Their three year old, however, speaks some French, Cambodian and English. Talented kid.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Shortening My Trip - 5-2-2012

Pacific Ocean from Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Upstairs bar at Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
Upstairs at Barracuda, Jack Johnson was playing on the stereo and warm breezes touched my skin as I drank my frosty Imperial. I admired the baby blue sky and sapphire water interspersed with white caps. I felt peaceful, more peaceful than I had since the Canadians left two days prior. And that's when it started to hit me. On this trip, I wanted to learn how to love unconditionally. Well, if I am supposed to love my friends and my family unconditionally, then the best way to love them is to be with them. For my parents, that means being at home, or at least close to it. For my friends in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, that means visiting them. Me hanging out in Samara for six weeks does not bring love to the people who love me, though I do acknowledge that it took coming down here for me to realize that.

Up at Barracuda, I started thinking about this freedom that I've scrimped and saved for. For six years, I've put off living, and starting my own life in favor of working stressful jobs, commuting long distances and living with my parents specifically so I could get out of debt as quickly as possible and put together enough money to travel for a very long time. I have accomplished these things.

But here's the kicker: I didn't realize just how much I changed from my last trip through Playa Samara until I got back here. I see that I don't actually want to be a perpetual traveler anymore. I do still want the option to bail on a job whenever I desire and without financial concern, and I certainly want to be able to travel when I want. For the first time in my life, though, I feel like the next step for me is to set down roots, not collect passport stamps. I want to find a job that complements or serves my personal purpose rather than only putting money in my pocket. That might mean something corporate; it might mean a clean break from my corporate past. I also want to find a girlfriend who shares my values. I want to move out of my parents' house, and be a better friend to my friends by visiting them often.

Swimming pool at Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
That's when I decided, amid the warm breeze, postcard view and easy Jack Johnson songs that I have to go home. I have to go home and bring love to the people who love me by visiting them in NYC and SF and wherever else they may be. I have to go home and build a life, not run from things I don't want...but really build life that any man would love to live. Sitting on a beach in Costa Rica isn't moving me towards these things, even though I had to fly down here, sit on a beach (well...hilltop bar), meet a whole bunch of people, clean up loose ends and do lots of writing here in Costa Rica to realize this.

Later that Saturday afternoon, I changed my flight home and shortened my trip by two weeks. That gives me over two and a half weeks to get into random adventures here, meet more people, and gain further insights while also moving me two weeks closer to building an awesome life at home. Shortening my trip also pulls some pressure off me here. Now that I'm just passing through, I can just have fun without worrying that I'm not making friends with other folks who'll stay for a while. That's liberating too.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Former Club Barracuda - 5-1-2012

Barracuda is a former dance club I visited several times on my last trip through Samara. The club even had a mechanical bull, which I never rode. Rosa, one of Brian's friends, mentioned that it's not a club anymore, but is still a cool place to hang out. Fresh from my closure regarding Irish Jane, and feeling better about the Canadians' recent departures (I'll do a separate post for them; they were awesome), I resolved to explore the former club on Saturday the 28th.

Forest path to Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
The path to Barracuda breaks off from the main road just outside of town; it's just an unmarked grass path that turns upward sharply on the left side of the road as you leave town. I missed it the first time, went back into town and got correct directions from a helpful hotelier, Julie, at the Tico Adventure Lodge. I spotted the grass path the second time and took it. The sounds of the road and town faded into silence beneath a green canopy. Only the sound of my feet on gravel and grass broke the morning silence. I followed the path up and spotted the gate.

A concrete path led further up past several small, white cabinas on my left to the former dance club. It was quiet, the cabinas empty. An older blond woman came out to welcome me. In quickly-spoken Spanish, I think she asked me if I wanted to enjoy the view or swim in the pool. I wanted neither but didn't know what to say. “Cerveza?” she smiled, and I agreed. I could use a beer after that climb. She led me into the outer patio, a white concrete area with shade tents, comfy wood and canvas sunning chairs and a small wading pool.

Cabana at Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
The club was built on a cliff; I could see all of Playa Samara from Barracuda's patio. Once, the area next to a big shade tent opened into the club. Now, though, a large bar with a sign reading “Beach Club” behind it sat in front of a wall that once led to a dance floor. "Pilsen? Imperial?" the helpful woman asked with a smile.“Imperial,” I answered. She went in the back and came out with a can. I paid her $2.00, thanked her and went exploring upstairs.

Pacific Ocean from Barracuda in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
Three years ago, the upstairs floor led back into the club's second floor. Today, a back wall sealed off the upper deck, preventing entrance to whatever happened to the rest of the club. The view, though, was still spectacular. Four tables with stools were spread across the vast, rectangular floor, with chest-high glass preventing people from falling over to the concrete patio and airy tents below. A high ceiling left plenty of space for the morning breeze. I had the entire floor to myself as I admired my 200 degree view.

Downtown Playa Samara, Costa Rica
My far left view was green trees and green hills. Just to the right, I could see the entire curve of Playa Samara with Punta Islita just off shore. Continuing right, I could see Playa Samara spread out before me on land, and white caps crashing against the coral reef offshore. Small figures walked or bicycled the straight main street leading to the beach. Further right, I could see the tide pools at the far end of Playa Samara, where the beached curved back out to the sea and ended. To the extreme right, I could see another cove open up with blue ocean beyond it – Playa Buena Vista. The views were stunning, and enhanced further by the springtime sun.

Not many people in Samara know about Barracuda now that it is a series of cabinas instead of a rowdy bar, but definitely make the hike up to the former club. And bring your camera; you won't be sorry.