We touched down in El Salvador at 7:30 AM on Saturday morning. The flight, despite the auspicious beginning (lines at 2 AM in JFK), was pleasant and uneventful, except for one thing … the early morning cup of coffee. I never dreamed that coffee could be SO BAD! The airline coffee, which is usually mediocre at best, was actually toxic. One would expect a little jolt, but the TACA Airlines (note the Central American origin) coffee, after an initial sip was left un-drunk. Rose nearly spit the coffee out on her lap, gasping for air. The omelets were tasty, but that coffee. …
And so … as we staggered off the plane in El Salvador, we were delighted to learn our connecting flight to San Jose was at the neighboring gate. And better yet, we had a full hour before it boarded because we had arrived exactly on time. Now, my perception of El Salvador was clouded by the politics circa early 1980′s during the administration of Ronald Reagan when our country was sponsoring one side of a civil war between the Sandinista guerrillas (the human kind) and right-wing death squads. We were on the side of right, truth and freedom. And for everyone else, the country was too dangerous to even consider visit. And this was the country that I had just landed in.
And so, it was with trepidation that I exited the plane, expecting some rink-dink banana republic, and some dusty, rundown airport. What I found was a modern facility, reminiscent of my recent flight into Palm Beach Airport. There were modern shops, restaurants, technology exhibitions. The airport even had a free set of Nintendo devices for children (and adults) to sample the latest in world technology. Yes there was an “artisan shop” with genuine Salvadoran goods … and they weren’t manufactured in China like many of the trinket shops I have visited in the American west. But the goods for the most part were the same we would see in the U.S.
There was one exception … a coffee shop … And that is why I write. We decided to spring for a cup of Java, thinking that anything could be better than the airport fare. And, with another flight ahead, and then a long drive to Arenal Paraiso Hot Springs Resort (3 hours), we would be very much in need for the extra milligrams of caffeine. What we found, and it could have been the context, was some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. There were no extra “flavors” to enhance the coffee (aka mask its mediocrity). Served black for me, it was piping hot, aromatic, strong and smooth. We entered the connecting flight to San Jose, muchly refreshed, thanks to the coffee.
Arrival in San Jose
A short hour later, we arrived in San Jose. We found the contact for our rental car company, amusingly called Adobe (no trademark infringement intended) Rentals. We were greeted by our first exposure to Tican (aka Costa Rican) courtesy. The rental agent, actually the manager of the rental agency, explained in careful English, with a heavy Chicago accent (he had spent several years in Chicago, before returning to his native Costa Rica), all the rules of the rental, the details about insurance, the exact scope of coverage, the terms of the rental of the GPS, the security deposits and the refunds, why the government required payment for 8 days, even though we were renting for seven days. This process, even though we were “first in line” took over 20 minutes for a transaction that typically takes me less than five minutes back in the U.S.. Throughout, the man was pleasant, helpful and cheerful. As for myself, having been up most of the night, and raring to get started on my vacation, it took a great exertion of will not to throttle the man. It wasn’t that he was slow; he was exceedingly careful and thorough. I just wanted to sign the *%&$ papers and get on my way.
While we were hungry from our overnight flight, I decided to hit the road and get out of San Jose. My thought was that we would find food en route, just outside the town limits. We were to being our travels on the Great Pan American Highway – Route 1. This is a highway, reputed to stretch from the American border, through Mexico, Central America, and all the way down to Tierra de Feugo in the tip of Argentina. Alas, reality always differs from perception. While the Pan American highway is long, and quite storied, it is not particularly grand. Yes, the road is paved; and yes it connects San Jose, in the East to the beaches on the Pacific, as well as the rest of Central America. But, to call it a “highway” would be an overstatement in most senses of the word. It was relatively straight. But don’t look for entry and exit ramps; don’t look for four-leaf clovers, soaring bridges, and majestic toll booths. Rather, this is a highway, Central American style; a two-lane road with a shoulder. In some places, for brief stretches, there are three lanes, 2 on one side, and one on the other. In other places, there are even four lanes for very short stretches.
If you remember, I told you I was hungry. The part of town where our rental agency, Adobe, was based had a few restaurants, markets and car repair shops, but most looked wanting, in need of improvement. Having programmed the GPS (a Garmin) for our final destination, Arenal Volcano area, we were off. I had been traveling on Route 1 for almost 10 km before I realized I was even on it. I thought I was on a long access road. As for restaurants, we quickly left the dusty town behind us, and were traveling though lush hills of green vegetation and pastures, rising and falling in the foothills. And no restaurants could be found for love or money. We did see lots of car dealerships, some new, some used, and some that should never have been offered for sale. This went on for miles. There were a few roadside stands for fresh fruits, like papayas, watermelon and bananas. After a long while, the car dealerships gave way to furniture showrooms (“meubles”). And yes, no food.
After an hour, we turned over the main highway onto an unmarked road (the GPS told us). There was a small gated shopping center surrounded by barbed wire, with a large restaurant featuring Tipico cuisine. As we later learned, Tipico means “casado” or plate of the day. The casodo is white rice, beans, salad, french fries, and a meat or fish (steak, chicken or fried tilapia). They offer “chimichuri” which I thought was a parsley and vinegar based steak sauce, but turned out to be pico de gallo, a super fresh salsa with diced tomatoes, onions, and cilantro.
Fortified with food, we continued our journey. Our rode started winding though the hills. It was not so much a mountain road like we drop in Switzerland, but rather, we were winding through verdant valleys, and grass-covered meadows. It reminded me of the alpine meadows of Switzerland, with dramatic views. The road continued to be two lanes and well paved. The borders of the road narrowed, and in some instances we were alerted to by the GPS to pelligroso or danger. It turned out the danger were narrow, one lane bridges over occasional ravines. We would slow down, check for traffic coming from the other direction, and then pass safely across.
The trip to Arenal Paraiso Resort was, according to the GPS, near 3 hours. Given our lack of sleep, I took it at the speed limit, variously 50 km/hr and 80 km/hr — not particularly fast. I was enjoying the exquisite scenery. Picture rolling Alpine meadows, studded with Palm Trees, enormous ferns, giant ficus trees, vines, and other lush vegetation. There were cows and horses abounding. And the air was fragrant and moist.
Remember that Cup of Coffee
As we neared what appeared to be the crest of these rolling hills, we started seeing signs for what I thought was cheese. It talked about Leche, which translates to milk. After the five stand featuring Leche, I stopped. The place had all sorts of baked goods and cookies, and candy. But it also had the “leche” product. It turned out to be a specialty of the region, a dulche de leche, or caramel candy. We got a sampler package. It wasn’t too sweet. It was a combination of caramel and fudge; it was chewy like caramel, but had the texture of vanilla fudge. Slowly chewing on it kept me focused on the winding road … until … finally …. I needed that cup of coffee.
When we travel, and we try to do often, we have a saying. Try to find something special, and the harder you try, the less likely to find what you are looking for. However, once you stop trying to find that something special, if you really give up, then you will find it in abundance. Here we were in the land of coffee; this was Costa Rica, home of the rich dark roast coffee prized by cognoscenti and connoisseurs. But no coffee shops were to be found … anywhere. We found bars, and “Sodas” … little family restaurants that also sold Coke and other sundry items. But nothing look like it had coffee. We finally stopped at a tiny place tottering on a cliff. Rose, in her best Spanish ordered a cup of coffee. It looked like something was placed in a microwave, and then the coffee appeared. Not quite so good as the airport in San Salvador, but mighty hot and fresh.
Incidentally, the best coffee was not had until we arrived at our destination in the Arenal Volcano region. We had a packet of Costa Rican coffee waiting in our room and one these 4-cup brewers. Ah … heaven on earth. And sitting on our patio, outside our room, looking out on the dormant volcano, we inhaled the coffee aroma, smelled the fragrant blossoms, and listen to the sounds of the jungle that surrounded us. The first full day of our Costa Rican adventure was at an end.
And the next morning … since we slept through dinner … a whole pot of fresh coffee (cafe con leche) with the freshest papaya and pineapple you ever ate.