El Castillo, Costa Rica

We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.

IMG_1143
The view of Arenal from our hotel in El Castillo.

There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.

While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.

IMG_1158

We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.

IMG_1168
Here we are scrabbling down of the many hills on our way up Cerro Chato.

We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.

Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.

Advertisements
El Castillo, Costa Rica

Oaxaca City, Mexico

A few weeks ago, my husband and I flew down to Oaxaca, Mexico for vacation. We had read that the food was amazing, the people were friendly, and the town was beautiful. All of these things were exactly true.

We spent four days and four nights in the city of Oaxaca before heading to the coast for a few days and then returning for a few more days in the city.

From the airport, we took the colectivo (small van or bus) instead of a taxi. You need buy a ticket inside the airport after you leave baggage claim. You also wait in the same line if you want to get a taxi. The cost is $80MXN per person. We learned the hard way that you cannot buy tickets from the driver or other employees outside of the airport.

There are so many delicious options for food in Oaxaca, I didn’t know where to start. There are street food vendors, markets, and restaurants galore, all to fit any budget. Below, I have listed all of my favorite places to eat and drink. Also, I found a very helpful website explaining a handful of Oaxacan dishes everyone should try while visiting.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
This mercado was more organized than those I have seen in other towns and cities in Mexico. It’s much more permanent and established than I was expecting. My advice is pick a food vendor that is busy with locals and grab a seat and a menu. We ate at one place and had a sopa amarillo con res (soup with beef) and a tamal (singular of tamales). Both were delicious and filing. For a total cost of $80MXN, it was a tasty light lunch.
IMG_20170218_111221
Lunch at Mercado de 20 Noviembre
Mercado Organico
This place is not so much a traditional mercado as a collection of small food vendors in which vegetarian and organic options are the norm versus the regular mercados in which meat is the main option in most dishes. The options here are more interesting than the other mercados and a little more expensive, but not out of control. On the day we went, we had an empanada (closer in size of a quesadilla in the U.S. than a traditional Argentinian empanada) and two memelas. Neither of the items were huge but they were tasty and a great first stop for our food crawl. Our bill came to $135MXN.
Drinks on the terrace at Gozobi
The view is lovely and drinks were reasonably priced at about $70-90MXN for a cocktail and $30-50MXN for a beer. For the location, we deemed this to be a pretty good and average priced.
Biznaga
The food was good but I thought it was expensive for Oaxaca. While the dishes we ordered were delicious (steak in a mole sauce with goat cheese and chicken in a poblano pepper sauce), I think there are other places to go if you’re willing to spend the money. Both entrees and two drinks cost about $500MXN.
Mezquite
This was definitely my favorite “nicer” restaurant in Oaxaca. They have a small terrace which has great views and the food is amazing. We went there once and had a round of drinks and the flor de calabaza empanada (squash blossom and cheese empanada) and spent about $200MXN. We returned a few nights later and ordered five starters and a round of drinks. Some of the starter dishes were larger than we expected. It was definitely too much food, but still delicious. Even with way too much food and a good cocktail or two, the bill came to around $500MXN after tip.
La Santisima Flor de Lupulo
Santisima is a nanobrewery but also serves cocktails and wine. We visited a handful of times to eat and drink because they also offer local cheeses, sausages that are made in house, and gazpacho that I still think about.
El Olivo Gastrobar
They have a nice open upstairs area and serve Spanish tapas. I went there twice for drinks and a snack. The patatas bravas were not amazing but the drinks were tasty and a nice change up from mezcal. A glass of Mexican wine costs about $60MXN.
Praha
It’s a great little bar and restaurant where drinks are slightly cheaper than the other terrace bars that we went to. The food menu is very much targeted towards tourists and is not local food. If you are in need of a hamburger or salad this might be the place to go though. The service was good and it seemed that they had live music most nights.
Boulenc
I had an amazing croissant sandwich (kale, spinach, and goat cheese) here one morning and am sad I couldn’t eat it again (and again and again). This sandwich was one of my favorite things I ate while in Oaxaca and was only $47MXN. The bakery is really small and only has about seven seats so if you can’t stay, take things to go (“para llevar” in Spanish).
Alhondiga Reforma
We stumbled across this little food court which is set up kind of like Latinicity in Chicago or Mercado San Anton in Madrid. When we went, we shared a delicious salad and fish tacos from one food stall, an Argentinian empanada, and a small Spanish tapa from another, and drinks from another. All were good but the salad (spinach, cranberries, goat cheese, and nuts) and the shrimp tacos were the best.
Tortas La Hormiga
I frequented the Tortas La Hormiga food truck in Jardin Conzati so many times that the guys knew me by name (I went there four times in three days). These were by far the best tortas I had while in Oaxaca. While there aren’t many vegetarian options, there is a large assortment of meat options. I say try them all and keep going back. At $25-45MXN per torta, it’s an amazing deal for an amazing sandwich. They have a handful of locations so find the one closest to you and eat there. You won’t be disappointed.
IMG_20170225_180636
These tortas were amazing. Even though I had four while I was there, I wish I would have had more.
Parque El Llano
We found great street food options in Parque El Llano on the northern side of town. Most of vendors seem to only be there during the day and close around 6 p.m. if not earlier. A few stuck around into the evening. Tortas, tacos, tlayudas, and memelas are the staples here, and they are delicious. This was the area in which we found the most street food on the north side of the city. I highly recommend going to this park especially Friday during the day when they have lots of food vendors and other vendors selling a little bit of everything. It’s also a very family-friendly and safe park, as lots of the parks in Oaxaca are. They even rent Power Wheels out to children to drive around the park. There was also a large bounce house that kids could pay to use.
Beyond eating, there’s lots to do in Oaxaca. We visited the Prehispanic Art Museum which was interesting but small. We also visited the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo which is free to the public.
We also wandered the quite streets from church to cathedral to basilica. There are an extraordinary number of churches in Oaxaca and many are worth a peak inside.
We also came across a handful of cultural events (parades, live concerts, etc.) that were not listed anywhere I could easily find as a tourist. This was very frustrating to me and is my only complaint about the city of Oaxaca. The longer I was in town, the more I began to notice bills posted around town noting upcoming events. The tourism booths were not much help, so I would recommend keeping an eye out for bills and posters while wandering the streets or hope to stumble upon a parade or concert like we did.
DSCF5633

On Friday and Saturday nights, there seem to be a lot of weddings at the Templo de Santo Domingo. I highly recommend hanging around this church in the late afternoon or early evening for some great people watching. This area comes alive in the evenings. Grab a drink with a view of the church and enjoy watching the Oaxacan wedding traditions unfold before you.

Oaxaca City, Mexico