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End of a Chapter

Ladies and Gentlemen, I write this with a penetrating, stinging sadness as I announce, the official ending of our adventures with YamaKataGo.com.

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What started as nothing more than a sightseeing hobby of mine, hiking through Japan equipped with only two boots and a camera, has miraculously turned into one of the greatest projects of my life. Topped perhaps, only by my 5th grade Presidential Campaign popup book that I somehow managed to complete the night before it was due after a 6 week trip to Bogota, Colombia. Jokes aside, YamaKataGo was what kept me sane my last few months in the Navy. A creative outlet, a platform to tell me story, and a way to connect with you.

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I can honestly say that I challenged myself to bring you a side of Japan and Costa Rica that is not often captured by your typical Japan Blogger or Costa Rican travel book. We journeyed together to the Mountaintops of Hokkaido, found ourselves face to face with a Bear Cub in Western Japan, traversed through Costa Rican jungles, and traveled through a Coastal City in Eastern Costa Rica that resembles Jamaica more than it does a Central American country.

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Alas, that has all, much to my regret, come to a termination. I am by no means a writer, but I’ve heard (read) many writers say many times, that the best way to reflect, is always, through travel. And, fortunately for me, the last three months has given me that time to figure things out.

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I ventured through the capital of Colombia, Bogota, and saw her historic beauty.

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“Woman in Red”

This photo above looks like a really simple photo, but this is, by far, my favorite picture that I have ever taken. I can close my eyes and remember the exact scenario, the entire feeling in all its contrast, the intense mixture of warmth and coldness, love and isolation, vibrancy and dullness, that was the moment this picture was taken.

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View of Bogota from Monserrate 

I got to see a small Colombian River town and go white water rafting through it. First time rafting, first and last time cliff jumping.

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The moment before my first and last cliff jump

I checked out the Caribbean Santa Marta of Colombia where singer Carlos Vives is from (whose album “El Amor de Mi Tierra” was my entire childhood).

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I then took a small detour to Richmond, Virginia and checked out the Civil War Museum.

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Followed by a much overdue visit to my Alma Mater, The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

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And finally, thanks to much luck and fortunate timing, have found myself back in the exciting world that is Tokyo, Japan.

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What has that extensive traveling taught me? What has it allowed me to reflect on? Well, primarily, my reasoning for shutting down the project, YamaKataGo.com. In travel, I have realized, that rarely does anyone ever get to choose how they go or when they go, only what they do before they go. Excuse the somber drawback, but dwelling on that exact thought has pushed me more than ever, to spend my time living, chasing, doing what it is that gets my heart, my soul, racing. And in the pursuit of such happiness, I’m afraid I cannot commit enough time to YamaKataGo.com AND provide quality content.

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Tokyo Living

As such, this will be my last post on YamaKataGo.com. But…..Ladies and Gentleman, I am more than thrilled to officially announce the creation of Yugen International as Creative Director and Coffee Roaster. Our content here at YamaKata will be shifting over to YugenInternational.com, as will my time and dedication. I really am sad to see YamaKata go, but thrilled to see what lies ahead for Yugen International.

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What is Yugen International? Well, some of you may have seen snippets of it during our development phase or heard rumors of us on Reddit, but, in the last three months, we have found a much sharper, more refined direction for Yugen and are thrilled about where we’re headed. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the website! And since YamaKataGo.com is migrating to YugenInternational.com, there will be a lot of admin and maintenance to take care of, so please bear with us and with the change. As always guys, thanks for reading, look forward to seeing you over at Yugen!

 

On Costa Rica

When you think of Costa Rica, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Beautiful beaches? Wild, dense jungles filled with exotic animals? Or simply, an adventurous escape from the mundane 9-5 with your best mate or soon to be wife or husband?

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I can’t deny that Costa Rica is all of this. It is captivating nature that will fill you with regret as you prepare to board your departing plane back home. It is spectacular wildlife that you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world. And of course, it is the adventure of a lifetime that will be told to coworkers for years to come when they ask for recommendations on where to vacation to. But, tucked away in a seemingly neglected capital filled with over 300,000 residents, lies a Costa Rican reality that is nearly the complete opposite of everything mentioned above.

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Farmer selling his produce at the weekly Feria

(Author’s note: Allow me to apologize upfront. During my time in Costa Rica, as with anywhere, if something caught my eye, I took a picture of it. For me, that normally (read, almost always) consists of something nature related, the unspoken beauty of Earth. And, while Costa Rica is a country filled to the brim with nature, this article tackles the inverted reality that is Costa Rica for its average citizen. Of that polarized reality, the partially disheveled, sometimes disheartening Costa Rica, I have very few photos. In fact, yesterday, knowing that I wanted to write this article, I went to a part of town that always saddened me just so that I would have a photo to convince you, the reader, that I’m not making all of this up. As you read, the pictures above and beneath words will be in high contrast to the words I have written. I hope you, as the reader, take this opportunity to experience just how much of a contrast there is between the Costa Rica that the tourist experiences and the Costa Rica its citizens know.)

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Monkey outside my hotel window. I accidentally left my bad outside full of bananas and fruit the night before. Heard a screech in the early morning. Needless to say my bananas were long gone.

Costa Rica, a former Spanish colony, gained independence from Spain in 1821. Due to the sudden power vacuum, a civil war erupted between Imperialists who wanted to join the Mexican Empire, and Republicans who wanted full independence. Republicans won a decisive victory at the battle of Ochomogo in 1823 and the capital was moved from Cartago to San Jose; however, Costa Rica was still a part of the Federal Republic of Central America. In 1838, due to the inefficiency of La República Federal de Centroamérica, Costa Rica withdrew and became fully independent.

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In the early 19th Century, Costa Rica experienced significant economic growth due to the export of coffee, along with tabaco and cacao. (For a more in depth history of Costa Rican coffee, be sure to check out my “History of Coffee in Costa Rica” post). In order to provide a faster, more efficient transportation of coffee from farm to shipping port, Minor Keith, a United States businessman, was contracted to build a railroad to Limon in exchange for land and a lease on the train route. Keith, being a shrewd (read: exploitive) business man, used this lease to produce a “Banana route” for exportation. As banana exports grew and competed with coffee as the major export, foreign investment also grew and foreign corporations began to hold a lot of power in the direction of Costa Rica’s national economy. Some of its historic symptoms (read: exploitations) can still be seen in Costa Rica’s economy today.

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Compared to the rest of Central America, Costa Rica enjoyed an extremely peaceful 20th century. The only exception was a 44 day Civil war in 1948 that left 2,000 Ticos (Costa Rican’s) dead. Following the civil war, a new constitution was drafted, true democratic elections were held, and the military was disbanded, making Costa Rica one of the few nations without an armed force (alongside Kiribati, Grenada, Andorra, and Iceland).

And that brings us to present day Costa Rica. Since 1953, Costa Rica has held 15 presidential elections and is deemed, rightfully so, the region’s most stable country.

[If you’re not interested in Mexican history that is more or less not directly related to this article, skip this paragraph] Ok, I’m going to derail a bit here, but I think you’ll enjoy it. I initially began writing “Just to provide some perspective, here are the internal conflicts other Latin American countries have had since gaining independence with Spain.” I began my research and, I found that in 1926, Mexico experienced a Cristero Rebellion, a battle against the secularist (think Separation of Church and State) and anti-Catholic policies of the Mexican government at the time. Then President Plutarco Elias Calles enacted a statute that would place restrictions on the Catholic Church. It would require all churches to register with the state, priests and ministers could no longer hold public office, nor could they “inherit property from persons other than close blood relatives.” In this reform, which came to be known as “Calles Law,”  penalties were places specifically on members of the church. Wearing a clerical garb in public was punishable by a fine of 500 pesos ($250 at the time, or $4,250 now). Any religious figure that criticized the government would be imprisoned for 5 years. And lastly, church property was seized, foreign priests expelled, and religious schools permanently closed. As a result, a rural uprising, supported by the church of course, temporarily tore the country apart. The rebels called themselves Cristeros (Of Christ). Peaceful resistance quickly turned to violent uprising, government troops were killed in raids and priests were tortured and murdered in public. In 1929, US ambassador to Mexico Dwight W. Morrow was able to draft, and have signed, a peace pact that would allow worship in Mexico to resume; however, the church would be held to some secular law (only some priests would have to register with the government and religious instruction could only resume in churches, not schools). The interesting part, perhaps more trivia factoid, as if the above wasn’t interesting enough, is that in the mid 1920s, high ranking members belonging to, none other than the Ku Klux Klan, offered Mexican President Calles $10,000 to aid in fighting the Catholic Church. They appeared to share his sentiments that “The Catholic Church…must be eliminated in order to proceed with a Socialist government free of religious hypnotism which fools the people.” I find it incredible that the KKK, an organization that believes in the success of the white race, and only the white race, would support the Mexican government, but I digress. [End tangent]

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As I was saying, compared to countries such as Mexico, that have had 5 internal conflicts since independence from Spain, Guatemala with a bloody 36 year Civil War, El Salvador with a Civil War that left 80,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared, a CIA backed army unit in Honduras that was responsible for the torture, murder, and disappearance of 184 students, professors, and journalists, Nicaragua with its infamous Banana War along with its Civil War and Revolution that left over 40,000 dead, and lastly Panama with its US invasion that resulted in over 300 dead in the span of one month. Relatively, Costa Rica has been a place of political paradise in the region.

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Young Nicaraguan FSLN rebel soldiers

Today, Costa Rica continues to enjoy a stable democracy as well as, for the most part, economy. In 2017, the estimated GDP for Costa Rica was at $57 billion, ranking 76th in the World. The country also has  a high level of quality health care as well as one of the highest literacy rates in Central America at 97%.

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Well, with all of this, how is Costa Rica not the perfect country to live in from any perspective? Well, for starters, even though GDP has increased significantly over the last 20 years, the national debt has been steadily increasing as well. In 2015, it accounted for 41% of the national GDP. In June of 2017, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed concern over increasing deficits and public debts, as the proposed 2017 budget was $16 billion, 33% of which accounted for debt payments. In August of 2017, President Luis Guillermo Solis stated that the country was facing a “liquidity crisis” and declared that higher income taxes were desperately needed in order to pay debts AND keep government services operational.

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Former President Guillermo with Former President Obama

Compared to other Latin American nations, Costa Rica is easily the most expensive country to live in. A tax is placed on every imported good (as seen here), which in turn drives retail prices up, costing citizens more money. Things that are found for reasonable prices in The States such as clothing, electronics, and automobiles, are rather expensive in Costa Rica, sometimes double the price.

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Manuel Antonio

Where does all of this tax money go? I truly have no idea. The cost of living in Costa Rica is extremely high, while salaries remain low, with the average salary being $730. A good portion of that is taxed, either directly or indirectly. And yet, you cannot drive down any road in Costa Rica for more than five minutes without having to swerve just to avoid a tire flattening pot hole. Still, trash litters the streets of downtown San Jose, as well as the highways, and even parks. Still, there is a soul numbing rush hour that could easily be avoided if major “roundabouts” were done away with. And while crime rates are relatively low for the region, they have also increased significantly in the last ten years. Ticos are investing heavily into their government and country, be it willingly or not, but the return on investment may be taking longer than expected.

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Whats more, Costa Rica is hailed as a country with one of the best health care systems in the world, but if you ask a Tico, would he rather go to the public hospital on insurance, or a private one, I can guarantee that all would say private. The wait time for the public hospital is, all jokes aside, sometimes life-threatening, taking weeks, sometimes months just to get an appointment. And the treatment by staff at a public clinic lacks hospitality in comparison. At a private clinic, you can be seen within a couple of days if not hours and are treated like the money you spend. Of course, not everyone can afford this exclusive attention.

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Hospital Calderon

To make matters even worse, a base salary for a nurse in a public hospital in Costa Rica is a mere $550 a month, which is under the national average for salaries. It’s a bit difficult to compare directly, but the average nurse in The United States makes $5,660 a month, ten times as much as here, and still, the cost of food in both countries is the same, and the cost of clothing, electronics, and automobiles is much more expensive in Costa Rica. Everyone pays for health insurance and everyone can get it, and while I’m sure it has helped, saved, cured many poor workers, homeless, or those that just wouldn’t be able to afford health care, it has left many middle class Costa Ricans frustrated and disappointed.

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Typical road in San Jose. Passed by this every morning on my way to work.

This frustration and disappointment is not just felt in health care. On any street in Costa Rica, along with 2-3 foot potholes, you will easily find brand new BMWs, Porsches, Audis, mixed with beat up used cars from the 90s, even the 80s, that your average Costa Rican drives. The class disparity in Costa Rica is unbelievable, seriously, ridiculously unbelievable. The middle class seems to be shrinking dramatically, almost to the point of non-existence. Upper class Ticos, enjoy a relaxed life, as they should having earned their wealth; however, the rest of Costa Rica, struggles simply to get by, trying to emulate the wealthy in whatever way possible so that they too, may escape financial stress. But, with 20% of the country below the poverty line, a ridiculous amount of imposed taxes, and a laughable salary in comparison to the cost of living, escaping a paycheck to paycheck lifestyle for the majority of Costa Ricans does not seem plausible, not any time soon at least. And without a strong middle class, consumer spending plummets and takes the Costa Rican economy with it. Luckily, the country’s saving grace is, still, foreign investments, due to Free Trade Zone which brings American companies seeking tax breaks along with their investments.

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Coffee Expo with Cafe Doga at the beginning of the year.

Costa Rica, is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful countries in the world filled with beautiful people. Its nature, beaches, and world class resorts make it a prime destination for travelers world-wide. However, if the country continues on the path its headed, there may be little that separates it from one of its less politically stable neighbors to the North.

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Irazu Volcano

For those of you who’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. If you disagreed with anything I’ve said, feel free to send me a message, would love to discuss. If you have any questions, feel free to ask away.

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Bonus treat for reading. Me 300 miles deep in the humid, exotic rainforest with my unkempt survival beard. Jk, I was at a nature walk 5 minutes from my car….

 

 

 

Cafe del Barista

What separates a good cafe from a mediocre one? What motivates loyal customers to continue choosing your cafe instead of the competition just down the street? What encourages new customers to give your spot a chance? Is it the atmosphere, the customer service, or the quality of the coffee? These were the questions that I came down to Costa Rica to have answered in my crazy pursuit to one day have a cafe that I can call my own.


I’d been in Costa Rica for a little over a month, and I still couldn’t find any real work. I applied to every, single, cafe in San José (That is no exaggeration) and even to a few outside of the city. Every interviewer always immediately asked me, a bit arrogantly it seemed, “Well what cafe experience do you even have?” I’d reply, “My five years in the Navy has not given me much direct experience with hospitality, or coffee for that matter, but I can assure you that what I lack in experience, I can more than make up for in dedication and willingness to learn…” Didn’t seem to matter.

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Volunteering at Cafeoteca, a good 8 pounds lighter than when I arrived to Costa Rica

Tired of waiting for so many 2nd calls or emails that never came, I began thinking that coming to Costa Rica, the source of quality coffee, to learn about coffee maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all. Looking back, I was carrying a decent amount of stress with me and I was losing a good amount of weight. I began toying with the idea of getting a job outside of coffee. Get something that wouldn’t have anything to do with specialty coffee, or even hospitality for that matter, but could afford me the opportunity to survive financially and volunteer after work or on the weekends at a cafe since I “lacked experience.” Swallowing my pride, I accepted a volunteer position (via a good family friend) at Cafeoteca, one of the previous cafes that more or less scoffed at my inexperience. They just happened to be one of the best speciality coffee shops in Costa Rica.

I began volunteering there just about every day from 8AM to 3PM and would use my downtime to search for a paying job. Luckily, I was able to learn quite a bit while “working” from how to use an espresso machine, to how to prepare “Metas” or brewed coffee (Chemix, Aeropress, French Press, V60, Gondola), how to properly steam milk for a Cappucino or Latte, and, most importantly, how to provide great customer service, all in Spanish mind you (It had been a quite a while since I had spoken Spanish daily). After about three weeks of what seemed like indentured servitude at best, I had finally been accepted as an English teacher at a learning academy. The pay was absolutely atrocious, but I could work nights, keep my day schedule at the cafe, and afford to buy food without much stress (Costa Rica is an expensive country contrary to popular belief, its just the salaries that are low).

The English Academy had planned to send me to a “teacher prep course” a month after I accepted the position; however, about two days after I officially accepted the job, one of my “co-workers” had gotten pretty irritated that the cafe wasn’t paying me, but still expected me to work so much. He recommended that I talk to a friend of his, an owner at another cafe, after he put in a good word for me. Not even a day later, I found myself face to face with the world famous Manuel Dinarte, Costa Rica’s 2008 National Barista Champion, and owner of Cafe del Barista. After a brief conversation and demonstration of my recently learned skills (I’m sure the recommendation helped more than anything), I was offered a position as manager at one of his cafes. And that was that. I immediately called the English Academy and regretfully informed them that I was no longer available and got to work.

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Jose preparing a V60

I quickly fell in love with everything about the cafe. The employees were all a part of Costa Rica’s budding 3rd Wave Coffee scene. Eager to both teach and learn anything and everything there is to know about coffee. The repeat customers were in love with the customer service that they received at the cafe, and that showed not only through their repeat business, but more so with how they interacted within the cafe. Nothing but laughs and smiles the entire hour or hour and a half in the shop. Only once had I ever seen a customer have a bad experience and that was because we closed at 530 PM, but they hadn’t taken the hint by 615. The kitchen, bakery, and baristas all loved what they did and that was easily reflected in the products that we delivered to the customer, be it a delicious, glazed cinnamon roll, mouth watering white wine sauce chicken with rice and beans, or our coffee, at the time, a natural processed Geisha from Herbazu, Costa Rica.

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My coffee knowledge seems to have quadrupled, luckily, while working at Cafe del Barista. I was fortunate enough to go directly to the farms from where we bought our beans and see the (sometimes manual as seen above) 1st, 2nd, and 3rd selection process that dictated how much a sack of coffee would ultimately cost.

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I was able to, under the guidance of owner Manuel, get hands on roasting experience. Seeing first hand, what it meant for a coffee to “Yellow,” how the official first crack was noted, and what parameters to use to determine when to stop a roast depending on coffee variety, process, and desired taste.

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At the time this picture was taken I was still learning about Quakers…

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I even got some hands on experience baking. Although, as Cindy, our baker below, can tell you, I have much to learn in the art of baking, and it may just be that I’m not cut out to be a professional baker.

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This was one of the few times in my life “You make it look so easy” applied perfectly

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As you can see, my empanada (Above Left) looks nothing compared to Cindy’s (Above right)

 

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Silky espresso shots

Our cafe was even featured in a TV program on best cafes in Latin America. Guess who the only other cafe was in Costa Rica that made it onto the program…..Cafeoteca.

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The kitchen crew, Monica, Enrique, and Ariel who probably provided me with 95% of my laughter throughout the day

And in everything that I’ve learned through my experience at Cafe del Barista, I’ve finally figured out what the secret is to running a great cafe. Its not how well the beans are roasted, nor is it the quality of the coffee beans, or the baked goods, or even the food. What turns a good cafe into a great one, is, as you’ve probably guessed, the people. The basic essence of what a cafe is, a place to escape the stressors of life and relax, a place to enjoy good company, share a cup of coffee, and laugh away your thoughts. The baristas serving your cup of coffee, with care and attention, take it from a mediocre cup, to an excellent one, and the difference is easily tasted. The chefs eliminate your growling stomach, with carefully prepared dishes from the heart. And, cafes fortunate enough to have an in house baker like ours, the baker provides the perfect, mouth watering complement to your great cup of coffee.

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Love these guys to death

I’ve heard stories of cafes, in Costa Rica at least, that seem trendy, seem hip, seem like a great place to relax, but the owners treat the employees like trash. I’ve visited these cafes myself. Sure, they have great coffee, good food, and everyone greets me, but each time, there is something that is just off. I’ve never felt a burning desire to go back to these places, to waste away my quiet Saturday afternoon enjoying their coffee, or even support their organization with my money. I strongly believe that is because the people were not taken care of, so how could they possibly fully take care of me.


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“You can smell it. The warm subtle notes of fresh Costa Rican coffee calms you as you breathe it in. The steady drip from the pot reminds you of when mother would pour her coffee early Saturday mornings. As you bring the warm cup to your mouth, your taste buds expand, anticipating the beautiful embrace of perfection. Come join us for a cup of coffee.” -Cafe del Barista, written by yours truly.

 

Catarata Del Toro

Just two hours North of San Jose, Costa Rica (much less if you’re able to leave before 7 AM, much more if you leave after 8 AM) lies a spectacular waterfall by the name of Catarata del Toro (Waterfall of the Bull). The waterfalls are situated in a National Park, which is open from 7 AM to 5 PM everyday except Sunday. $10 for Nationals and Residents and $14 for foreigners.

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Getting there from San Jose (if you have a car) is simple enough (Just type Cataratas del Toro into Google Maps); however, I would highly recommend something equipped with 4×4. On the way there this morning, we passed a sedan that must have been FWD spending a good 10 minutes trying to get up one of the inclines. After they had burned enough rubber, filling the air with smoke, and making my car smell like an industrial plant, they decided to turn around and return home. Or at least get enough speed on the downhill in order to physics their way up.

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I had never actually seen one of these signs in person before. I do believe that the incline shown here was in fact drawn to scale.
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The photo does not do the incline justice.

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As we continued to push through the beautiful winding roads and near vertical inclines, we came across a bull (ironically enough). In an attempt to capture everything that was Cataratas del Toro through my camera, I decided it would be a good idea to get out of my car, approach the bull, and take a picture of it. The first snap of my camera went off, no problem. Seeing that the bull was on a bit of a ledge and could not immediately charge at me without falling and breaking a leg first, I imagined that my Factor of Safety was at least doubled. As I approached and took the second photo, the bull looked directly at my from the side (if that makes any sense). I inched a bit closer, took a third photo, and the bull snorted. My feet were telling me to turn around, but my curiosity and desire to take the perfect picture got the best of me.

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I pushed even closer. Click. Fourth photo. Now, the bull, never taking his eyes off of me, let out another snort, and stood up. I thought “Ok, he probably doesn’t want me to come any closer, but I can still get a picture or two before he rushes down the cliff. I take the fifth picture (seen above) and my stupidity tells me to get just A LITTLE bit closer to get a better picture. I shuffle my feet forward, heart beat accelerating a bit as it nervously chuckles at my stupidity. Now, ladies and gentlemen, I am not a farmer. I did not grow up on a farm, have never really been to a farm, and can count the number of times I have seen a bull in real life. I know bulls, and any wild animal can be rather dangerous, but I don’t know what behaviors to look out for that indicate aggressive behavior. Keep all of this in mind. Now, as I went to put the camera to my face, for what I had already determined would be the last picture, regardless of quality, I realized. The bull, had, a full on erection. I had…obviously, never been quite been in that situation before. Confused, startled, and a bit unsure as to how events in my life had led me face to face with an aroused bull, I decided, regardless of the outcome, further interaction with this beast would not be life-enriching. I put the camera down, accepted where I was currently at in the universe, out of all of the possible options, and continued on what I would hope to be a more life-enriching journey.

After another 20 minutes of scenic driving, I finally arrived to the park, parked my car, and eagerly began a hike I had been long overdue for. Unfortunately, the hike through the park is a BIT disappointing if you’re looking for more traditional hikes. The initial trails are covered in what appeared to be Basalt.

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Never seen this guy before in my life.

Once you pass all of the Basalt, which feels great on your feet, but takes away (in my opinion) the connection with the trail and the hike, you reach a set of at least 300 stairs (estimating).

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Endless Stairs

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Finally, after a short, 30 minute hike, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of Cataratas del Toro. You can continue your descent, which I highly recommend, but unfortunately, due to the acidity of the water, you cannot swim in the water.

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Continuing down you will find that moss is covering just about everything. If you misplace your step and put your hand on the mountain-face for support, your hand will  actually “fall into” the moss. A slightly disturbing experience that quickly made me pay more attention to my foot placement.

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Miniature Waterfalls

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There was a Howler Monkey somewhere here that I assume was heckling at us.

As we departed the park and started our journey back to San Jose, there were plenty of animals along the way. Having learned my lesson previously, I neither got out of my car, nor approached any of the wild beasts.

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Being an easy two hours away from San Jose, I would highly recommend checking out Cataratas del Toro as a day trip (even closer if you’re coming from the airport). If you would like to stay overnight, or use the area as a layover on your way North, there are a few lodges that you can book in the area.

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Hope you enjoyed reading and the pictures. Don’t approach bulls or stuff could happen!

Limón, Costa Rica

My first time back in Costa Rica, I sat down with my fairer skinned family members from Costa Rica and asked them all about this beautiful country. I asked them where the best beaches were, where the most exotic wild animals lived, and of course where I could find the best hikes. As they explained to an eager 20 year old adventurer the history and geography of Costa Rica, I followed their stories with my finger on a map. Instantly I was taken to the paradise beaches of Guanacaste in the Northwest. I imagined the lush rainforests surrounding Arenal, filled with species I had only ever seen on National Geographic. I envisioned the tourist frequented cabins and lodges to the Southwest in Manuel Antonio surrounded by Nature. And of course, the national treasure of coffee fields spread throughout the eight coffee growing regions of Costa Rica. As my finger traced the destinations on my small map of Costa Rica, I noticed that no one was mentioning anything about a small section of land to the East. My curiosity took charge and the question was delivered. “What about this Limón?” I asked. “Oh, even we don’t go there, its just too dangerous,” they replied. In fact, everyone said that.

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I decided to see for myself, just how dangerous Limón really was. With a population of 60,000 people, 14,000 of which are black (the largest percentage in Costa Rica), the first thing I noticed upon arrival was the amount of racial diversity compared to San Jose. I mean, it would be hard for anyone who has spent anytime anywhere else in Costa Rica (no matter how progressive they claim to be) to not quickly realize the difference in racial diversity. San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, boasts a population of just over 330,000 people, but only 3% of that population, just shy of 10,000 people, are black. Fortunately enough, Costa Rica is not (currently of course) a backwards country plagued with racial tension, in your face racial discrimination, and burdening stereotypes. Compared to other Latin American countries (especially Panama), Costa Rica is one of the least diverse countries; however, Costa Ricans still have a wide mix of Amerindian, European, and African ancestry, and in the last century a growing Asian population. 

American servicemembers deploy to Costa Rica

So why then, and more importantly how, did all of Costa Rica’s black population end up in Limón?

The first Africans arrived to Costa Rica with the Spaniards via the early slave trade. (I’m about to go on a crazy tangent so hold on) In fact, on his fourth and final voyage in March of 1502, Christopher Columbus, onboard Capitana, was under orders by the Spanish King to sail past Hispaniola, and instead search for a passage to the Indian Ocean. Amidst the search for a way West past Central America, a rather violent storm forced Columbus and his crew to drop anchor off the coast of Cariay, what is now Limón. Impressed by the gold and jewels that the native Bribri adorned themselves with, he sent word back to Spain that he had found an untapped, limitless amount of treasure. In 1506 King Ferdinand ordered a voyage to Costa Rica in order to colonize this “Rich Coast.” The attempt was an absolute disaster. Exotic predators, native tribe defenses, and unbearable jungles significantly delayed colonization.

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It wasn’t until 1561, over 50 years of relentless attempts to colonize this wild land, that the “Rich Coast” fell under Spanish hand and the town of Cartago was established. Due to the previously mentioned fierce resistance to colonization by the native tribes, large plantations were never able to take hold and run successfully. This, along with fewer immediate cash crops like neighbors in what is now Panama and Nicaragua, led to less investment in Costa Rica from the crown, resulting in fewer slaves shipped to Costa Rica.

However, today’s black Costa Ricans are not descended from the few slaves brought by the early Spanish settlers. These Spanish colonization/slave trade descendants were nearly completely assimilated by the end of the colonial era. Their roots, remnants of their culture and facial features, are still strongest in Guanacaste where black slaves would work on colonial haciendas.

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Most of today’s blacks in Costa Rica are descendants of Jamaican recruited immigrants Towards the late 1800s, coffee became the main export of Costa Rica. In order to be taken to Europe, the crops had to travel down through South America due to in-traversable jungles, which significantly increased the cost of export. In order to overcome this unnecessary journey South, a railway and the port of Limón were constructed in 1871. Due to the the lack of available local labor, workers were imported from China, Italy, and the Caribbean. In 1872, the first boat from Jamaica arrived at the port of Limón with 123 workers. Over the next year, Limón saw an increase of over 1,000 Jamaican workers in the port. Many expected to work, save enough money, and return to Jamaica, since they wanted nothing more to live apart from the Latinos, whose “language, religion, hygiene, and easygoing work habits they despised.”

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In the early 1900s, work was much more scarce in Central Costa Rica than it was on the East coast, due largely to the United Fruit Company. Many highlanders (central Costa Ricans who were of European descent) went to work in Puerto Limón in search of higher wages. This immediate clash of West-Indians and Latin Americans caused significant racial tension. Ticos resented the blacks, believing that they “monopolized the high paid technical and clerical jobs just because they spoke English.”

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In 1930, the United Fruit Company abandoned its Caribbean plantations and transferred its operations to the Pacific coast. It offered to resettle its workers there, but President Ricardo Jimenez, in a 1934 decree, forbade the company to transfer “colored” employees, arguing that it would “upset the country’s racial balance and could cause a civil commotion.”

Interestingly enough, the first generation of Antillean blacks born in Costa Rica, were not recognized as British subjects and Costa Rica denied them citizenship, leaving them with no country of citizenship. Forbidden to own land, they often lost their subsistence farms to Ticos with bogus documents in Spanish, a language they could not read. Finally in 1948, following the civil war, President Pepe Figueres decreed that anyone born in Costa Rica had all the rights of Citizenship. (What. A. Ride)

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The vestiges of Jamaican immigrants can still clearly be seen today in Limón, with most of its residents, of black and white descent, speaking perfect Spanish, Limón creole, and English. Most restaurants that I visited played nothing but reggae music and have an Irie vibe to them. Unfortunately, due to the removal of major investments in the area in the last century, mainly the United Fruit Company, Limón has seen in increase in crime with poverty and unemployment on the rise. However, this increase in crime is no greater than that of San Jose. Any smart traveler, who does not flaunt money, stay out late, or go looking for trouble will have a great time enjoying the amazing beaches, wildlife, and caribbean food that Limón has to offer.

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Just South of Limón lies the beautiful Cahuita National Park. You can walk or run down the shoreline, and if you get there early enough, won’t find another soul. If you have a car, you can drive further south and find beaches such as Playa Negra, Punta Uva, and Playa Grande.

 

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Sloth Sanctuary

Just North of Cahuita lies a sloth sanctuary. Its rather difficult to miss as there is a Giant Sloth Crossing sign in front. Once you pull into the parking lot, a Giant prehistoric sloth that is said to have weighed over 4 tons welcomes you in. At the sanctuary, they take in sloths, injured from electrocution, predators, or car accidents and are rehabilitated back to health. Tour guide is super knowledgable and I realized sloths can actually move pretty fast, not that fast, but faster than I had imagined. Did you know sloths are great swimmers? I most certainly did not.

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We had a moment

 

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Irazú Volcano (イラス 火山)

Just 50 kilometers East of San Jose, at an altitude of 3,432 meters, lies the highest, active volcano in Costa Rica. Since its first historically recorded eruption in the early 1700s, Irazú has erupted a total of 23 times. The most famous of which, in 1963, was the same day John F. Kennedy (US President) began an official state visit. The ash that spread across all of San Jose as a result was so profound that infrastructure was unable to operate at full capacity for an entire year. Fortunately for Ticos, Irazú has been relatively quiet with her last eruption taking place in 1994.

After FINALLY going through the heart-breaking, soul-numbing, mind-boggling process that is searching for, inspecting, and buying a used car in Costa Rica that won’t break on me the day after I buy it… I decided I would explore this beauty of Costa Rica.

The drive from San Jose to Irazú is extremely straightforward, and, if you wake up early enough, you can make it in under 90 minutes with minimal traffic. Broken into three parts, escaping San Jose, enjoying the cooler climate of Cartago, and the adventuring into the mountainside, the drive is actually extremely relaxing, which I will probably never say again about driving in Costa Rica. Once you arrive at the top, there is a toll both that charges an entrance fee and parking fee of about $4 for locals and $20 for foreigners (I’ll leave this issue alone for now).

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View from the parking lot

They say that at the top of Irazú on a clear day, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. If you’ve read any of my previous hiking posts, you’ll know that one thing I’m particularly good at, is attracting clouds to whichever mountain I visit. After parking my car, grabbing my camera, and heading out to take my first few shots, I realized that this day would be no different.

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Mother Nature waving at me

Inside the Irazú National Park Area lies a rather large plateau (seen below) that will take you just to the edge of the crater (left side of image). Of course, given my abilities, as soon as I came down from the parking lot area (far right side of image), the previously clear crater was immediately engulfed by clouds. Interestingly enough, instead of moving in a horizontal direction, these clouds were seemingly shooting straight up from the crater, and then twirling back downwards after passing the plateau.

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Fortunately, with the exception of the crater, the clouds that would pass through the plateau were intermittent. Intense periods of low visibility were quickly followed by breaths of sunshine, allowing me to experience, albeit briefly, Mother Nature at her finest.

 

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Crater clouds being majestic

Even though I was still not able to see the crater due to cloud coverage, I was enjoying the short periods of clear visibility I was offered.

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Oddly enough, Mother Nature sensed that I was feeling rather lucky and enjoying my limited cloud interruptions and decided to present me with this beauty below. As I was taking a picture looking back towards the parking lot, a rather high-speed cloud flew past the camera. Thinking it was just another short interruption, I kept the camera ready, waiting for the opportunity to take the shot. An immediate 15 degree drop in temperature reminded me that it would have been real nice to have listened to guidance and taken a jacket with me.

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Rule 35

After what had to be a minute of near complete darkness, I pulled the camera down, looked around and realized I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front of me. I am humble enough to admit that an ounce of fear stirred within me as I tried to remember just how close I was to the edge of the crater in order to not accidentally tumble down. Looking back towards what I thought was the direction of the parking lot, I saw two figures in the distance. One asks the other, “Are you sure the parking lot is this way?” To which the other replies “I’m pretty sure this is the right way.” It wasn’t.

Now, finding myself five minutes into this extreme low visibility scenario and without a jacket, I started back towards the parking lot, in the opposite direction of where the two lost souls seen below were heading. Mother Nature, sensing my hurried escape, decides it would be a opportune time for a little rain. As I pick up my pace, shielding my non-waterproof camera with my shirt, the rain falling from the cloud I was immersed in picks up in intensity forcing my to break out into a sprint. Continuously wiping water from my eyes and angry that I didn’t even get to see the lake at the bottom of the crater, I curse Mother Nature and her terrible sense of humor and vow to never again return to this terrible Volcano. Of course, as soon as I get to the parking lot, open my car and throw my camera in, soaking wet, I look back towards the plateau, and it is, crystal, clear…

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About 20 to 30 Irazú visitors that day got to witness a 28 year old male, sprinting, soaking wet, towards the crater with camera in hand. There was no way I was letting another cloud rob me of my crater picture.