Saturday, January 12, 2013

PURA VIDA! Costa Rica is a Paradise for Vegans

Eight years ago, I travelled to Costa Rica with my husband.  I had a medical conference there (at the lovely Marriott in Los Suenos, just outside Jaco) and then we travelled down to Manuel Antonio.  We had a fabulous time doing the Arenal volcano day-trip, rainforest canopy zipline tour, and much more.  The trip was amazing, though it has been somewhat mared in my memory because, two days after we returned home, my first companion animal I ever had (my beloved dog Blackie) passed away just shy of his 17th birthday from complications of congestive heart failure.  I have had this awful feeling about going back over the past two year.  I know, I know... totally illogical, supersticious and irrational.   Still, terrifying.  And over the past 8 years, we've had a few sick dogs and each time, the thought of leaving them for a few days while we went to Costa Rica has been unsettling.  Then throw in the factor that, eight years ago, we were not vegan.  Honestly, besides the amazing pineapple, I don't remember eating a lot the fresh fruits and vegetables.  Like many omnivores, we did the surf-n'-turf, Mahi-Mahi and great seafood specials.  So I've been wondering how, as vegans, my husband and I would be able to manage remote locations outside San Jose as strict vegans?  I'm happy to say it was easy.

We had just five days for a getaway so we decided to skip San Jose on this trip (my husband's second and my third to Costa Rica) and head to the coasts.  We knew that we wanted to get back to Manuel Antonio, but we wanted to check out another part of the country that was new to us and we decided on Montezuma at the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Thankfully, we live only a 15 minute drive from Newark Liberty International Airport and they have a direct flight to San Jose with United. Having driven the windy roads to the coast before, I know all too well that they are treacherous and make for quite nauseating driving.  So we opted to fly.  There are two major carriers domestically within Costa Rica that do multiple flights daily all over the country in small propeller planes; Nature Air and Sansa.  The advantage of Sansa is that they are right there at the International Airport in San Jose whereas Nature Air is a short 15-20 minute (and approx $20-25 taxi ride) to the domestic airport at Pavas.  Given that Sansa's fares were about $20-$30/head more expensive than Nature Air's, it's kind of a wash on price.  We like Nature Air as the cabins in the planes are MUCH larger and their safety record is better than Sansa's.  So, we took off from Newark at 7:30 AM and in 5 hours, we were in the heart of Central America!  We hopped a cab to the domestic airport.  Unfortunately, our flight leaving to Tambor was delayed an hour.  So we decided to go upstairs to the cafeteria style restaurant at the airport to see if there was anything that might hold us over as "lunch":

We made our way to the counter and I had a nice discussion with the lady who was serving the food, making sure certain things were fried in oil, not butter, etc... and VOILA!  A vegan lunch was prepared with some black beans, rice and fried plantains.  In a pinch, a great, filling meal.  I decided to top it off with Guanabana Nectar.  (I have no idea why they don't sell Guanabana in the US.  Translated, it's often referred to as "Sour Sop".  Perhaps that less than flattering translation is the reason?  I don't know... Honestly, it's the best juice, nectar of any I've ever had anywhere.  Hands down.)

After lunch were boarded our short 30 minute flight to the Tambor "airport".  Yeah, it's not so much an airport as it is a paved strip out in the middle of the jungle!  But as soon as we got off the plane and grabbed out bags, our driver was waiting to take us to the resort in Montezuma.

Along the way, we stopped many times to look at the many different birds and animals we saw.  It was very rural and quite bucolic.  We saw many of the "Buddha Cows" and each seemed to have a lovely symbiotic relationship with it's own local bird:

We made our way through the tiny town of Montezuma with it's mostly tourist-oriented cheap hotels, restaurants and tons of barefooted locals selling their wares on the street to the Ylang Ylang Beach Resort.  We chose Ylang Ylang because it's an eco resort that proudly serves fully vegan cuisine, in addition to non-vegan food.  We arrived about an hour an a half before sunset so we dropped our things in the room and ran off to the beach;

Powdery white and tan sand with volcanic rocks and boulders dotting the shoreline, there were some powerful waves in the warm, clear blue waters.

We unpacked, showered and changed for dinner, excited to delve into the vegan menu for dinner.  We started with the Namaste Rolls, which were "Oriental style rice paper rolls stuffed with avocado, lettuce and vegetables served with a toasted sesame oil dressing."  They were spectacular- probably our favorite item on all of their menus!

We also started with the Palm Heart Paradise Platter, which was sliced hearts of palm, tomatos and an avocado fan served with a fresh basil lime pesto:

This, too, was tremendous!  We were immediately struck how simple these dishes were and how the flavor combinations are really all about highlighting the natural flavors of the fruits and veggies, not covering them in lots of sauces and such.  

For the main course, My husband ordered the baked Thai Teriyaki tofu which was served over rice and vegetables:

I opted for the Savoury Ylang-Ylang Curry which was mixed veggies (cut into "balls) with tofu in a coconut curry sauce.  They use their own home-grown coconuts for the milk and you can really taste the freshness and strong coconutty flavor:

In all dishes on the property, they used a soft, silken tofu.  I imagine this is because soft silken is what's available.  I'm not a huge fan of it when served as "cooked tofu" but we were in the wilderness and the fact that there was anything like tofu, was an enormous treat.

We both really enjoyed our dinners.  We were exhausted and stuffed and skipped dessert.  We walked the grounds a bit before heading back to the room and going to bed.

We woke up with the sun the next morning, around 5:30 AM.  Really, this was sleeping in for us, as 5:30 AM was 6:30 AM EST, and we normally wake up just before 5 AM.  But when in Costa Rica, we've found that so much of your day is spend out of doors, in nature, that you effortlessly and naturally synchronize to the cycle of the sun.  We stepped out of our beachfront room:

walked across the terrace where there are chairs for viewing the ocean through the Palm Trees:

Down the short walkway to the beach, passing the hammocks that are so nicely set up to be right at the beach's edge, but in the shade:

...and out onto the beach.  My husband, the photographer, was inspired and taking lots of morning-light photos.  

It's amazing how the beach, the jungle and all of the surroundings change throughout the day based on the light and which direction it's coming from.

I let him be and I climbed into the hammock, just enjoying the sounds, smells and sights of the rainforest at the edge of the beach, waking up to a new day.  I immediately felt calm, centered and that I was back to my True Self, living out of doors as a vital part of the nature that surrounded me.  It felt like coming home.  I was, again, at peace.

After a while, we both realized we were quite hungry and made our way over the main restaurant for breakfast.  Sitting out under the palm trees on the terrace, looking out at the sun that was now well risen over the ocean-- it was priceless.

Breakfast started with fresh Costa Rican coffee-- some of my favorite in the world! Naturally, since this was a vegan-friendly resort, they had soymilk for my coffee.  My husband had his usual morning glass of water and treated himself to freshly squeezed orange juice, and I opted for a glass of fresh, locally sourced Tamarind juice which was just perfect.  For our mains, we ordered the "Tipico"....

The "Tipico", which is a "Typical Costa Rican Breakfast including Rice and Beans, Fried or Scrambled Eggs, Tortillas, Cheese and Fried Plantano Strips" sounded delicious--- minus the cheese and eggs.  The kitchen staff was all too happy to mix and match from other items on the menu, so we had them hold the eggs and cheese and, instead, sub in the tofu breakfast scramble.  This was filling and delightful:

As with dinner the night before, we noticed that there were not many oils or sauces, allowing the foods' natural flavors to be highlighted.

We spend the morning hiking to nearby beaches, exploring the landscape and hunting for shade because, MAN! That sun was brutally hot!

When we came back to the resort for lunch, we relaxed in the shade, my husband enjoying the ocean view:

While I had a glass of freshly squeeze Maracuya (Passion fruit) Juice.  Amazing stuff!

We decided to split everything for lunch.  We started with the Latino Nachos were were basically black bean nachos with pico de gallo and guacamole, piled really high.  Obviously, we had them hold the cheese:

I also tried the gazpacho to start which was light, fresh and had a fair amount of balsamic in it, hence the color change:

For the main course, my husband ordered the casado with tofu which came with a side salad topped with pico de gallo:

I ordered the avocado wrap with fresh veggies in a spinach flour tortilla:

Now, you may be noticing a trend;  There's a lot of avocado in everything we've been eating!  YES!  Let me tell you, I didn't notice this in either of my prior two trips to Costa Rica (and how I didn't, I'll never know) but the avocados in Costa Rica are light, sweet, fluffy and creamy.  I've never tasted such wonderful avocados anywhere else in my life!

Lunch was amazing.  We ate too much, as is often our complaint to one another after a great meal, so we decided to take on the waves at high tide that afternoon and it was a workout!  But the ocean was warm, the sun was shining and it was a perfect afternoon at the beach:

I don't tan like my husband does.  Basically, I can get a sunburn just thinking about the sun.  So we went into the shaded pool area for some shade time.

It was so much fun, watching the Geckos run about, all the large ants and bugs crawling on the large plants nearby.  We even saw a local stray dog come running by and try to eat a Gecko.  But the sneaky little Gecko ran clear across the surface of the pool much to the chagrin of the dog.  There were lots of other exotic, rare birds and land animals and, of course, we saw monkeys, too!  The property is so deeply nestled into the jungle at the coast that the wildlife is overwhelmingly present.

That night, we had cocktails on the beach at sunset, then went back to the room to shower and change and it was time for dinner.

My husband needed the namaste rolls again, that's how great they were!  He also wanted to stick with what he knew he liked, so he repeated to the thai teriyaki tofu, again.  I opted to order something different, so I went with the hearts of palm maki roll.  I have to say, this was disappointing. I was expecting rice in the roll, but there was none.  It was just a few tiny shreds of hearts of palm with some raw veggies wrapped in seaweed with a peanut soy dipping sauce:

 However, they more than made up for that "miss" with the main that I ordered; The Asian Rice Noodles Alla Coconut Creme.  I asked them to throw some tofu in and they gladly did.  The creamy coconut ginger sauce was to die for!  Amazing food:

The resort only ever has 2 vegan desserts listed, so we decided to order them both.  The "Decadent Chocolate Banana Mousse" was very rich and creamy.  The cacao was a bit too strong for my palate and left an undesirable bitter aftertaste, but it was cool, refreshing and enjoyable, nonetheless.

We were disappointed to see that the second dessert, the "Trio of Truffles" was, essentially, the same exact mousse (but a bit sloppily) rolled into balls and coated in cocoa powder, shredded coconut and chopped mint, respectively:

Oh well.  In truth, we were full and knew we were over-eating so we didn't finish them.  We wanted to make sure we didn't leave the next day without having tried the desserts and now we can say we did.

The next morning, after breakfast, we strolled the property once more, taking in the amazing rainforest that enveloped us, just a few meters from the coastline:

We packed our bags and it was time to leave for Manuel Antonio.  We had a lovely time at Ylang Ylang and we look forward to our next visit with them.

I won't get into the particulars of our hectic water taxi trip from Montezuma to Jaco with connection land transfer to Manuel Antonio.  Suffice it to say it was a modified shit-storm and we'll leave it at that. I suggest flying and that's exactly what we'll do if we ever need to make that kind of transfer again.  SILVER LINING:  I got these fun 2 pictures (okay, one is not a picture as much as a screen shot) from being out in the open gulf of water that separates the mainland of Costa Rica's Pacific coast from the Nicoya Peninsula:

We finally made it to our second destination; Manuel Antonio! We stayed at Hotel Si Como No, which is an Eco Resort at the top of the cliff perched above the beach at Manuel Antonio.  It was recommended by many people as a "vegan-friendly" hotel option, including the staff at Ylang Ylang.  We had stopped into their gift shop and had dinner there one night 8 years ago and were impressed with the property.  I had promised myself back then that, if we ever came back and if we could afford it, we would stay at Si Como No.  So we did.  That said, we found it to be less vegan friendly than even some of the restaurants in town.  Vegetarian-friendly?  Absolutely.  Vegan-Friendly?  "...what's a vegan?"

After getting situated in our room, which was lovely, we went to the poolside bar, The Rico Tico.  We ordered a lunch of cocktails (because I needed something to take the edge off the stressful water-taxi trip) and started with appetizers.  We had the fried yucca with local spices.  It was served with refried black beans but we had to ask for it "sin natilla"-- without sour cream:

We also had the patacones; the thick, green sweet plantains, fried twice.  They were served with a delicious pico de gallo in and more of the black beans (again, ask for it without sour cream) in cute little tortilla cups:

I was still famished so I polished off a vegetarian burrito -- hold the sour cream and cheese.  They filled it with grilled veggies like eggplant and zucchini and used the same refried black beans, and then pressed/grilled the burrito.  It was like a pannin burrito.  DELISH!

We then took the hotel shuttle down to the beach, enjoyed the surf and sand and watched the sunset.  I got a shave-ice from the older man who was selling them from his wooden cart:

A quick note;  Be careful when ordering these.  Regardless of flavor, they finish them off with Nestle Lechera which is most definitely NOT vegan.  I told him to leave it off and he was only too happy to do that for us.

This might be a good time to add a note about the food at this resort and the challenges we were clearly facing;  I had emailed the hotel in advance, explaining that as vegans, we'd like to have an alternate source of protein other than what was on their menus on their website and I wondered if tofu might be available.  Apparently, tofu is hard to come by in those parts, and the Operations Manager, Dennys Quiros, wrote back to me saying that "Our F&B manager will have available lentils & chick peas while you at the hotel. Just contact me as soon as you arrive if any details required."   I had also specified that I wanted to make sure that there was a non-dairy milk available as I like milk in my morning coffee and my husband like milk with his cereals.  I was taken aback when, at the restaurant for lunch, I asked about the milk situation and they told me the resort had none.  However, they suggested two "supermarkets" each 4 km away that I could go to and find some.  This was really irritating.  I mean, this is a 5 Star resort- one of the most exclusive and expensive properties in the whole area-- and they obviously know where to get soymilk and are telling guests to go shopping?!? REALLY?? Well, it was a bit of a hassle, but I contacted a local market and they had no soymilk but they had soymilk powder that was vegan, so I had it delivered for $6 (that was the price of delivery and the powder).  At least I knew that we'd be set with a vegan milk alternative in the morning.

We were exhausted from the day's travels so we decided to stay at the Rico Tico for dinner.  Indeed, they had the chickpeas and lentils, but my husband wasn't having it.  He was full from lunch and wanted something lighter.  We started dinner splitting the bruschetta but we had them make it on pita bread as the regular white bread made throughout much of the country has added eggs, cream and butter to it.  The vegan pita was a great compliment to the fresh flavors from the tomatos:

I wanted to try the gazpacho.  The waiter, Carlos, told me that the resort usually makes it with raw egg in it so, if I wanted it again, to be sure to ask them to make the puree for me without egg, which he graciously did:

The flavor was good but they served it WARM!  I'm sorry, but in my world, gazpacho is a chilled soup.  Otherwise, it's called tomato soup.  That was very disappointing, from a 5-star resort.

I opted to let the chef do whatever she wanted with the garbanzos and she made a delicious "stew" of garbanzos, tomatoes, garlic, squash, zucchini, potatoes and celery.  She served it with jasmine rice.  It was divine!

My husband thought he had played it safe with the spaghetti pomodoro.  Think again. There was no real "sauce" and it was quite watery.  He was less than thrilled.  Though it was good to know that all pasta used was free of egg:

Again, we passed out early that night, shortly after dinner.  The travels and all of that sun just took it out of us.

When we woke the next morning, we were excited to see the big breakfast buffet.  Sadly, there were so many items that could have been made vegan that weren't.  Like the breads. What we ended up having was fresh fruit, potato hash-brown patties, rice and beans with fried plantains:

It was quite filling, especially with the coffee and fresh juice.  Also, I was really, really pleased that, even though I brought my soy milk powder, I didn't need to use it.  The operations manager at the Rico Tico went into town and picked up a quart of Silk.  That was really nice and restored my faith in the service this hotel should have shown from the get-go.

When we did a repeat on lunch that day, I knew the 24-hr-black-bean-fest was getting to me and I was sure it was getting to my husband.  I did a little local research and heard about a "new" restaurant called NGO.  We decided to give NGO a go for dinner.

It was a short walk from the hotel in the heart of the town at the top of the hill.  We met the owners, Kong and Susan.  Susan is a Tico from Central Costa Rica and Kong is Vietnamese American.  They met and married in the US and moved (back for Susan) to Costa Rica from their home in Clearwater, Florida just two years ago and opened NGO 1 year ago.  We arrived for dinner at 7:15 PM on a Sunday night and there were already 1 couple and a family of 3 adults and 3 kids ahead of us.  There was also a couple waiting for take out ahead of us.  The restaurant is tiny and really not so much of an eat-in joint; There's one table for two inside and one table for four outside on the street.  And I mean, on the street.  No sidewalks, really:

It was a hot and humid night in the jungle and the restaurant was brutally hot.  There was no cross ventilation, so we made the choice to take the food to go.  It doesn't make a difference because, eat-in or take out, they serve everything is styrofoam containers.  That was a bit upsetting, especially for such an ecologically focused country.  Also disappointing was that they were slow that night so we ended up waiting for nearly an hour for our food to arrive.  Ngo is by NO MEANS a vegan restaurant, but the owners were really willing to work with us to leave out all manner of animal flesh and eggs to make vegan food for us and we appreciated that.  In fact, when watching Kong prepare the Wok, I saw him thoroughly wash out and dry the Wok and utensils before cooking our meal.

We started with the vegetarian spring rolls, with the meat left out.  They were served with a peanut dipping sauce and were really tasty:

For the main, my husband ordered the Chop Suey.  I like the flavor but agreed with his assessment that it was doused in way too much oil!  Far too greasy for these two New Yorkers.

I ordered the "Arroz Chino"- Chinese fried rice.  Also, egg and meat left out, and it was filling and tasty, though a bit too oily, as well.

We both really enjoyed meeting Kong and Susan and appreciated their willingness to work with us to make vegan food.  We also appreciated that they comped us the spring rolls, since they were slammed in the kitchen that night and dinner took over an hour to make.   We're both still not completely sure why they were slammed with just two small and one medium sized party ahead of us at peak dinner time, but we appreciated the experience, nonetheless.  Susan invited us to come back to try one of her famous smoothies the next day but, we found out; Her secret ingredient in all of the fruit flavored smoothies is evaporated milk.  So be careful about that if you go there, vegans.

In the hour of waiting, I explored the neighboring establishments.  There was a sushi spot up the road that had plenty of vegan sushi options.  I also went to the SUPER JOSETH, the local market: 

This is as big a supermarket as you'll find in the rural parts of Costa Rica, and it really had everything one needs.  Fruits, veggies, breads (that were vegan) peanut butter, jelly and instant soups (some were vegan).  Lots of chips and snack foods that were also vegan.  This was very encouraging to see as was this: 

That's right!  It was the last one on in the store and it was $8, but they had Silk Pure Almond chocolate milk and they had my powdered soymilk products too:

This was great to know!  I actually brought my Vanilla SoyaPac home.  I still need to open it up and make some and let you know how it tastes!

We spent our last day in Manuel Antonio at the resort adults-only pool which was lovely.  Michael really enjoyed it: 

Their "Two for one" drinks at happy hour was amusing.  They insist on bring the TWO out at once!  


We also went to the Butterfly sanctuary and checked out the amazing butterflies:

Apparently, we vegans smell sweeter than the pineapple and mango they have out for the butterflies, because this guy wouldn't leave me...

And even as I stood to walk around, he closed his wings and hitched a ride with me:

Sunsets from at Manuel Antonio are some of the most beautiful I've seen anywhere in the world.  They easily rival Hawaiian, Tahitian, Galapagos and Calfornia coast sunsets:

We spent our last night dinner down at the beach at a new (just 10 days open at the time) restaurant called Dragonfly Thai.  We had been shopping for gifts at the various shops along the beach and my husband looked at the menu and shouted, "Hey hun!  THEY HAVE TOFU!!!"  We had such a great time, we both posted reviews on Trip Advisor, immediately.  Here's mine:

Dragonfly is only 10 days old but it already has a head start against most other restaurants in Manuel Antonio. It is in the best location at the beach, it is modern, sleek, chic, and very open and airy. The wait staff were genuinely friendly and solicitous without being hovering or pushy. We went tonight for a later dinner but I could imagine what an amazing view of the sunset they have from the second floor across from the beach. 

Dragonfly is an especially key addition to the Manuel Antonio food scene for vegetarians and vegans. My husband and I are both vegan. We were recommended to stay at Hotel Si Como No, an eco-resort, as the food selections would be more accommodating of a plant-based meat free diet. While this is true, all the restaurants at the hotel as well as the other ones in Manuel Antonio that we tried, approach a vegan diet as one that is purely vegetables and grains with some beans. I had even emailed the hotel to ask them about the possibility of having tofu for some of our meals. They told me that they could not get tofu but they did have garbanzos and lentils. Wow this has been fine, you can imagine our ecstatic elation to see the menu of dragon fly across from the beach yesterday proudly declaring multiple options available as either "vegetarian" or "choice of chicken or tofu". Tofu?!?! In the rainforest?!? This was a very big deal for us and we know it will be for countless others who eat a strictly plant-based diet.

We started with the vegetarian spring rolls, which are actually vegan as there are no eggs or dairy in them. 

While they could have used a few more moments to drain before being served, the flavors worked really well with the three delicious dipping sauces. There was a savory flavor to the vegetables inside the roll that really made me wonder if it was just vegetables we were eating! But indeed, we were. The presentation was spectacular: served on a sushi boat, the rolls were diagonally split and presented askew with the dipping sauces in the back of the boat and a delightful shredded carrot lime garnish in front. Much like the decor in the restaurant, this presentation is as good as you would find in any Manhattan Thai restaurant.

For the main course, my husband got the sweet-and-sour tofu. Served with Jasmine rice, it was a sweet and sour medley of fresh vegetables pineapple and crispy tofu. 

I ordered the green curry with tofu. It was deliciously spicy with a great mix of green vegetables and a strong flavor of fresh bamboo shoots. 

We both really regretted having had too much to eat at the pool this afternoon as we were too full to order cocktails or other appetizers and items off the menu at Dragonfly. Though we go back home to the USA tomorrow, we are sure that whenever we come back Manuel Antonio, Dragonfly will still be here, perched atop the beachside and, by then, a longtime local favorite.

We can't wait to come back!

And so we left the next morning and flew back to San Jose where we had hoped to find vegan options of some sort at the international airport.  Sadly, there wasn't even rice and beans to be had as there was at Pavas, the national airport.  I guess this is because it's mostly Australian, European and North American tourists who travel here and they tailor the offerings to "ham and cheese" or "turkey and cheese" sandwiches.  I managed to find these coconut cookies that are vegan, and many of the Cafe Brit chocolates are vegan as well.  We picked those up, an apple and a lot of plantain chips, nuts and a carton of Pringles and snacked the 4 1/2 hours home to New Jersey. 

In the end, I have to say that I regret having been so afraid to return to Costa Rica sooner.  Our dogs were fine while we were gone-- even Miss Phoebe, who is getting on in her years and definitely had a lot of health issues this past year.  Moreover, as vegans, there were plenty of options the filled us with healthy, nourishing meals.  It made me realize that I still have a ways to go in undoing my first 38 years of thinking about food.  I'm so American in my thinking-- "Where's the protein?"  I think I've unconsciously replaced "meat, chicken, fish" in my former diet with "Tofu, Seitan and Tempeh" as my "mains".  I need to be more focused on beans, nuts, and accepting that there really is plenty of protein in fruits and veggies.  Not every meal needs a complex protein like tofu, tempeh or seitan.  This was a great wake up call for me.  I was never lacking for food.  I was never truly hungry, other than my perpetual state of Jewish Hunger that I was raised with-- 

"Are you hungry?"  

"Yeah, I could eat..."

This has invigorated and re-inspired me to take my blogging about travel and food more seriously.  Travelling and vegan food as a form of activism are two core passions in my life and I'm glad to start this new year off with a great post about an amazing country filled with wonderful people living a peaceful life, in harmony with the land they aggressively protect.  The pure life or, as they say in Costa Rica, "PURA VIDA!"

Here's the best part of this whole thing: As I sit here, finishing this post, my husband (the amazing vegan chef who you should be following on Twitter if you're not already) brought me up some lunch.  He was inspired to try his own take on the Namaste Rolls we so enjoyed at Ylang Ylang.  He added pressed, marinated, sliced tofu strips to his version and let me tell you-- these are AMAZING!  Another great recipe from my favorite chef!  This one definitely will be in the cookbook...

In the end, this is what travel is about for me; It's not just about escaping, though that's a fun part of it.  It's about exposing yourself to new aspects of the amazing diversity that exists on our planet.  It's about internalizing those experiences- the sounds, sights, smells and tastes- and bringing them home with you and carrying them with you, inside of you, as you move forward in your own journey in life.