San Jose, Costa Rica, from Above

(Trip courtesy of Marriott Costa Rica)

Ah, Latin American cities: what’s not to love? Wide boulevards, awe-inspiring palaces, gorgeous old-world-new-world architecture…packs of stray dogs, beggars, choking smog, bewildering transportation options… San José is better than most, but it can be difficult to maintain perspective while tired and footsore, your head all a-whirl from the noise and traffic and giant billboards.

Check out the view from here.

I was standing on the top of a hill overlooking San José, Costa Rica, a little travel-worn and stressed about a frank exchange of opinions (about Obama’s healthcare plan…how blasé) I’d had with another, wealthier American I had met there. It happened at Tiquicia, a nice, though tourist-focused restaurant serving traditional Costa Rican fare.

There’s a full bar, live music and dancing on weekends—but the real attraction is the view, which, as you’ve already seen, is breathtaking.

It was a foggy night that was beginning to clear as I shot the view. From there, from that distance, perspective was forced into my brain with a jolt, forcing me to recalibrate. San José had transformed from a manic whirlwind of cars and dogs to a sea of twinkling lights and orange-illuminated clouds far beneath me. And, the inevitable analogy: that even my most deeply held beliefs are, in the long run, silly preoccupations. I didn’t even care, as it turned out, about that asshole’s position on healthcare, and I can’t change his mind for him. Proselytizing is pointless. Just, focus on one point, breathe, and enjoy the view.

By: Ben Britz

The Anti Tourist goes to Costa Rica 2k10!

What follows is a series of photographs by Ben Britz and Elizabeth Seward which, we’re confident, perfectly capture the bon vivant essence of this beautiful country. And if not perfectly, then acceptably. Anyway, here are some pictures of Costa Rica.

Carara National Park, Costa Rica

Carara National Park, Costa Rica

Carara National Park, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica

Elizabeth in our room, looking out…

at the view.

A restaurant. A Costa Rican restaurant…in Costa Rica.

Costa Rican Surf ‘n’ Turf in that restaurant.

On a mountaintop near the Pacific in Costa Rica.

Tropical storm’s a-brewin’.

Elizabeth Seward chillaxin’.

Outdoor massage huts, Los Sueños, Costa Rica.

Los Sueños Marina by night.

Costa Rica from above.

Totoco EcoLodge, Nicaragua

Sometimes vacations can be tainted by high expectations–or at least, sometimes I fear they will be. I was vaguely worried about this before traveling to Nicaragua; reading my guide book and planning the trip had inspired in me such ardent fervor for this  mysterious country known as the land of lakes and volcanoes, I was sure something would disappoint.

In particular, my concern fixated on Totoco Eco-Lodge, where my friend and I intended to stay on Isla de Ometepe. The breakdown of nerves was as follows: excitement, because Totoco looks incredible in pictures (and video!) and has an absurd number of positive reviews on Trip Advisor; anxiety, because I didn’t see how it could possibly be as amazing and gorgeous as it seemed on the Internet; and a little bit of basic worry, because they don’t accept reservations for dorm beds.

The day-long journey to Ometepe—a 106-square-mile island formed by two volcanoes sitting in Lake Nicaragua and looking positively unreal, like two mountains holding hands on top of the water—contributed nicely to my mounting nerves, as it involved roughly nine hours of travel on a shuttle bus, public bus, ferry, and two taxis. Oh, and add to that a scorching Central American sun and stomach problems that prevented me from eating.

By the time we arrived at Totoco, I thought I might pass out. The staff there immediately took our bags, greeted us warmly—as if we did have reservations (I suspect they would have warned us in advance if they thought they wouldn’t have space), and, upon hearing I was sick, hurriedly brought me a glass of fruit juice. I then looked up, just in time to catch a front-row-center view of the sun setting against one of the island’s two volcanoes, Concepción. It was a stunning contrast of luminousness and darkness unlike any I had seen before. I knew immediately that this was the best place in the world to be sick.

Totoco is located about 200 meters (656 feet) up from the base of Ometepe’s second volcano, Maderas, on the northwestern side, which means it affords breathtaking panoramas of Concepción, the island’s isthmus, and the surrounding Lake Nicaragua. To say that the lodge is seamlessly nestled in the surrounding jungle may sound trite, but it’s true. You fall asleep in the open-air dorms to the sound of cicadas and exotic birds and wake up to howler monkeys and, in rainy season, booming, bone-rattling thunder (the clouds above and around appear unbelievably large, close, and looming—or fluffy, depending on the time of day).

Because I had been ill, I spent the next day alternately resting and exploring the lodge and surrounding grounds. (I needed to get my strength back up for the following day, when we planned to climb the 1,394-meter-high Maderas.) Totoco’s main common space, which is open on most sides, consists of a dining area, bar, and inviting rocking chairs and hammock—all with an amazing view. It’s a nearly perfect place to be lazy. As my strength slowly returned to me after lunch, I stared out at the sunlit flora growing just beyond the steps. Oversized green leaves were keeping company with countless varieties of tropical red, pink, and orange flowers, while dozens of butterflies and bees fluttered along from one plant to the next. For a few moments it seemed feasible that I had actually stepped into a nature scene in a Disney movie.

While I recovered and talked with the supremely friendly staff and owners, my friend went on a long guided walk around the nearby town of Balgues. In the process, she learned more about Totoco and its ethos, which made us fall in love with the place even more. Started by three non-Nicaraguans (one Australian, one Belgian, and one Dutch), Totoco makes a point of fitting into its surroundings—not only physically, but environmentally and communally. In addition to the lodge itself, which features compost toilets and a greywater recycling system, the operation encompasses an organic farm where they grow all their own food as well as a development center located in Balgues. The center, run by a friend of the founders, works with the townspeople to support the community through microloans–for residents who present business proposals for projects such as jewelry making or a bike repair shop–and through education projects, like the building of a town library.

It is a prime example of sustainable, community-minded, eco-friendly tourism. A fair amount of this seems to exist all over Nicaragua, too, making it an exciting country to visit these days. As one staff member at Totoco put it, many tourist operations in Nicaragua are “learning from Costa Rica’s mistakes.” (No offense, Costa Rica.)

Of course, with eco-friendly and open-air lodgings come more bugs in more varieties (and larger sizes) than you may have ever seen before. And let’s face it: peeing in a funnel (in the compost toilet) isn’t always easy. But eating delicious, homemade organic food while the jungle breeze blows around you and the sky turns a glowing yellow and then a piercing red against the silhouette of a volcano…that’s worth it.

Story and photos by Jillian Steinhauer

A Rainforest Resort: Costa Rica

(Scarlet Macaw at the resort).

Marriott’s Los Suenos Resort on the coast of the Pacific in Costa Rica isn’t something I’d normally think I’d write about. I mean, I’m trying to tell you all about things you wouldn’t know about already, right? Well, here’s something you might not know: this ocean-side resort is smack in the middle of the rainforest. And by rainforest, I mean, we had lunch outside one day (with some top-notch ceviche and maracuya drinks no less) and Scarlet Macaws were frolicking about in the trees by our side. Costa Ricans are used to this. Gringos are not. I was amazed. I felt like a child chasing them with my camera and when I finally wore myself out, I slumped down in a chair on the beach with my computer in hand—determined to document the experience.

The rainforest is all around Los Suenos and it’s no accident that I saw those macaws. I later found out that the hotel has actually planted a certain breed of tree specifically to attract macaws to the grounds. And the golf course there? It’s beautiful. And I don’t even play golf! But the 18th hole? Yeah. It’s right in the middle of the rainforest. I saw an eagle there. I’m definitely learning how to golf.

Of course in addition to the awesome landscape surrounding the hotel, there are other things worth seeing. Nuevo Latino is a restaurant on site with molecular cuisine. You would not believe what these people can do to a papaya, or a piece of coconut. It’s like Bill Nye the Science Guy meets Julia Child. Ridiculous, weird, and also delicious. The art throughout the place ain’t so bad, either. A ship ornamented with glass bottles, waterfall architecture, and the nearby Carara National Park make it all worth while.

We were sad to leave the resort but couldn’t really complain while kissing the country goodbye from the first class windows of our American Airlines flight home. Now that was a comfy ride back to NYC.

(Carara National Park)

By: Elizabeth Seward, Photos By: Elizabeth Seward and Ben Britz