Saturday, December 31, 2016

Living "La Pura Vida"

In Costa Rica you hear the words "pura vida" spoken everyday. Literally it translates to "pure life" but in Costa Rica it means so much more. It's an expression that can have many meanings, from greetings and salutations to "thank you", "your welcome", "no worries", "cool", or "life is good". And life IS good as I sit back in my reclined chair looking out at Papagayo Bay this morning. The warm air and light breeze feels nice on my skin. My senses feel alive after a barefoot run in the sand and a dip in the cool, salty water.  

The sun rises at 6am here, and at that time of day the beach is empty except for a few egrets, herons and vultures in search of their morning grub. The water is calm in the bay with little ripples of waves rolling in and out over the black volcanic sand. As the sun rises higher it paints ever-changing colors of pale and dark blues down on the water, with shimmery golden-yellow reflections on the surface near the shore. Just beyond the sand is a mangrove of tall, majestic Guanacaste trees, where monkeys and large iguanas make their homes. Early in the morning you can hear the howler monkeys bellowing their deep, resonant calls that sound more like they should come from big gorillas rather than the small, 20 pound leaf-eating creatures that they are. The mangrove forest filled with sounds of its creatures gives an exotic feel to the black sandy beach in front of me. 

I've just spent the past week with a group of people who were all strangers to me seven days ago. This situation is pretty common for me, as an active travel guide. My Italian co-leader and I led our group of excited Americans through all the eco-systems in Costa Rica on the Backroads multi-sport trip. We started near San Jose with a tour of an organic coffee farm where we witnessed the entire process from harvesting, drying and roasting the beans and then tasted the velvety-smooth Arabica coffee. From there we headed up into the cloud forest, hiking past leaf-cutter ants to magnificent waterfalls and sleeping in a beautiful eco-lodge tucked away among the tall trees. 

Throughout the week our group of thirteen  shared one adventure after another: we paddled down the Sarapiqui river spotting iguanas, toucans and monkeys; hiked to the tallest waterfall in Costa Rica that plunges down into a volcanic crater; took part in grinding cocoa beans into pure decadent chocolate; biked down bumpy roads in the warm rain below the Arenal volcano; sipped on coconut water straight from the shell; walked across long hanging bridges through primary rainforest; flew across the country in a 15 passenger propeller plane; kayaked in the calm Papagayo Bay; flew like superman down a mile-long zip line; and finished the week with Guaro Sours and a beach barbecue. After 6 full days of adventures and togetherness, we have become good friends, and last night's celebration of a guest's 50th birthday and sending her through the "spanking machine" was a testament to this! 

Throughout the week we were immersed in the "Pura Vida" mentality of the friendly and eternally optimistic Costa Ricans (referred to as "Ticos" here). We were warmly welcomed by Ticos who have a passion for living the good life, and they do it very well. Our kayak guide who lives just down the beach explained how much he loves his laid-back beach lifestyle, kayaking, catching fish and meeting travelers from around the world. "Pura Vida!" Our zip line crew joked around with us and moved from one platform to the next by zip-lining upside down and howling like monkeys. "Pura Vida!" Our raft guides have mastered the art of splashing unsuspecting guests with copious amounts of water and then winning our hearts by spotting iguanas and monkeys up in the trees. "Pura Vida!" After making us a delicious lunch in her home, Olga patiently taught us how to make corn tortillas and showed us how she lights her wood-fired stove every morning because "a warm kitchen is a happy kitchen". "Pura Vida!" We met countless Ticos who are genuinely joyful and happy with life here. 

How do they do this so effortlessly? Perhaps because Costa Rica hasn't had a military for the past 70 years and instead has put its money into education and infrastructure. It's a country with free and mandatory education and a 96% literacy rate. There is high environmental awareness and ambition to protect the land, with over 25 percent of the country protected by national parks and reserves. Hydroelectric and geothermal energy abound and this year the entire country was run on renewable energy for over 100 days. Beaches are free and open to everyone and the eco-tourism industry is booming.  "Pura vida" is not only everyone's go-to expression (whether old or young) but it is also a way of life here. Carefree and happy Ticos have a love of the simple things, which seems to be the essence of 'pura vida'. 

I take a deep breath and look out at the water from my lounge chair.  A couple of fishermen in a small boat head out of the bay, and I can hear one of them singing. Costa Rica is the kind of place that beckons its visitors to take in the natural surroundings and appreciate every moment. It inspires a love for adventure and not taking life too seriously. It is 'pura vida'. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Racing Daylight in the Dolomites

There's just no other place like the Dolomites. Located in northeastern Italy along the boarder of Austria, the Dolomites are named after the whitish jagged Dolomite rock spires that jut out of the ground like enormous skyscrapers. The shear cliff walls tower over the green valley floor, dwarfing Germanic houses and wooden huts down below. Being in the presence of the majestic towers gives one the feeling of being small, perhaps even fairy-like, in a mighty kingdom that demands reverence. 

As if this weren't magical enough, Mother Nature also gifted this land the ability to grow grapes, and to produce very good wine. It's a cooler climate in terms of grape growing, so the whites are crisp and refreshing. Some of the best Pinot Grigio in the world hails from here. Far from the bland and boring Pinot Grigios that often line the shelves in liquor stores, these wines are vibrant and exciting with racing acidity that makes your mouth water and want to go back for another sip. Other notable wines are the aromatic and floral Gew├╝rztraminer, the age-worthy red Lagrein and the light and fruity red Schiava. 

The food is just as interesting and impressive. It has an Austrian influence, which means you will find handmade Italian pasta with ragu as well as local pork knuckle with dumplings, and you can trust that both will be authentic and delicious. With the nearby Lake Garda and Adriatic Sea, you can also find delicate fish dishes, which pair nicely with the crisp white wines. For dessert the same menu in a little family run restaurant in a quiet town may offer both Tiramisu and Apple Strudel, making you question whether you are in Italy or Austria. (This kind of variety does not usually exist in Italy, or any small town in Europe for that matter, where food is proudly regionalized. Unless you are in a big city, it would be uncommon to find German/Austrian cuisine in a little Italian restaurant). To make matters more confusing (or delightful, depending on your perspective), your waiter may address you in either German or Italian (or if you look like a true local, perhaps in the local Ladin dialect!). The menu may be in any of the above languages as well. 

The houses and chalets are also very Germanic in style with white stucco walls, dark wooden rooftops and colorful flowers overhanging from their balconies. 

My first introduction to this diverse wonderland was with someone relatively new in my life. We spontaneously decided to rent a car and drive the 9 hours from Prague after meeting each other for the first time just one week prior. The evening of the first day we met, we found ourselves sipping wine together on the top deck of a river boat, floating up the Danube River and gazing at the beautiful lights of Budapest. As I think back on it, it sounds too good to be true. Like the beginning of a love story. It was actually Day One of a Backroads trip with my husband and parents. My new friend was our amazing Backroads leader, whom my mom claimed could be my sister (it's the blonde hair, I think). So not a love story, but definitely the beginning of a budding friendship. She and I hit it off from the beginning and by the end of the day, as we cruised up river into the night, we chatted like old friends. Once we discovered that we both had the following week off we agreed without hesitation to spend it together and to go someplace magical where neither of us had been to before. (Oh the amazing opportunities of working as a guide in Europe!)

The magnificence of the Dolomites greeted us in many facets. We cycled around them, hiked with the goats on the trails that weave through them, climbed up to their craggy tops, and feasted on the local cuisine in the huts down below. From every aspect, the big white rocks are imposing and jaw dropping. The beauty of each day was more impressionable than the last. In short, neither of us wanted our little adventure to end.

On our last full day, we decided to bike down the valley and go wine tasting. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we could take bike paths the whole way and pedal down the valley past vineyards, apple orchards and cute little towns. We each picked an apple from the first orchard we came across and began our bike ride down the perfectly paved bike path. What bliss! We rode past families of bicycle tourists, with toddlers and gear in tow and kids as young as 6 or 7 riding their own bicycles with panniers. It's common to see families traveling this way on the bike paths in Europe. The paths are shared by all types, from bike touring families, to serious cyclists in lycra and even cute little grannies and grandpas on upright bicycles. I'm not quite sure what category we fell into. We may have been geared up in lycra, but we were far from serious with our multiple stops for photos, pizza and wine tasting. We even stopped for a bit of shopping along the way. Our trunk bags were packed full of bottles of wine, snacks and our new bike socks.

We were like giddy school girls as we pedaled into what looked like a painting, past rows of vines along hillsides with the beautiful backdrop of the dolomite mountains.  Little towns greeted us along the way with cobble stone streets and wineries that tempted us to come in and stay a while. The path through the valley seemed to just keep going and neither of us were in any hurry to turn around or loop back.  At a certain point we decided that we wouldn't turn around! Rather than riding back to our vehicle, we would keep going until our heart's content and then catch one of the many trains that go up the valley back to our vehicle. Brilliant!

So we kept riding and taking it all in, putting together our own version of a 'perfect Backroads tour' that would follow our path, stopping at point x for a beautiful lunch al fresco and point z for wine tasting and a tour of the winery, etc. Eventually we found ourselves around dusk at a wonderful little wine bar in a town called Ora, which means "now" in Italian. What a fitting name for the kind of place where you find yourself living in the 'now' because you really don't want to be anywhere else. There was only one other patron at the cozy little wine bar, and he seemed to be friends with the bartender. My eyes lit up as I scanned the wall lined with wines, both local and from afar. They insisted that we try the local varieties, specifically the dense red Lagrein, and we happily obliged. It had rich notes of raspberries, plums and baking spices, similar to a Syrah. The bartender then picked up a big big hunk of air cured ham and used the hand crank meat slicer on the bar to put together a beautiful plate of thinly sliced prosciutto and crusty bread to accompany our wine. We were in heaven! By the time we finished our last drop of wine and ate the last nibble of prosciutto, the light of the day was nearly gone. We said our goodbyes and headed to the train station to catch the next train up the valley. 

As we walked up to the platform with our bikes, a train was just taking off. We looked at the schedule and realized that we had just missed the last train! We looked at each other with a bit of panic and then almost simultaneously grinned widely and declared, "Let's do it!"

We strapped on our helmets, jumped on our bikes and put on some tunes for motivation. We had a portable speaker, 4 bottles of wine, extra socks and peanut M&M's, but no bike lights. We giggled at our oversight as we navigated our way out of town. Once we were back on the bike path we sobered up to the fact that we were literally racing daylight. With no bike lights, and a path that is not lit up, we needed to hurry. We had 20 miles to get back to the car and probably less than an hour of daylight.

So we put the hammer down. I've never pushed myself so hard for so long on a bicycle.  We pedaled at our max speed without speaking; our bodies tucked, breathing heavy and intentional, eyes focused and legs burning. It was quite the contrast from our lackadaisical ride in the other direction. Pushing like this in the dusk was exhilarating! We cruised down the empty path with shadows of grape vines on one side and the glistening of the river on the other.  Eventually nearly all visibility was gone as the darkness enveloped our surroundings. The last 5 miles we just had to trust that the path was as smooth and predictable as it had been, because we could not see a thing. Luckily, there were no sudden bumps, holes or branches that could have been our downfall. When we finally arrived to our vehicle it felt as if we had just finished an amazing race. We did it! I half expected there to be spectators cheering us on at the finish. We took about 5 minutes to catch our breath and change out of our bike shoes. We gave each other the obligatory high five and laughed at our negligence (especially for being 'bicycle tour guides'). Mainly though, we felt proud and satisfied for squeezing every last drop out of such an incredible day.