Spanish Immersion at Monte Azul
There’s something about the skies over Central America, layer after layer of different types of clouds, the thick, threatening kind above the airplane, misty ones just beneath, and two or three layers of those massive cumulous thunderheads scattered over the most perfect blue ocean one could imagine. Azul, Spanish for blue, is defined by the beautiful Pacific Ocean of Central America.
After a wonderful trip to Monte Azul in April, a 125-acre preserve at 1000 feet on Chirippo Mountain, Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, I made it my goal to return to Costa Rica after completing my Rosetta Stone studies in Spanish. November 4th was that day. I was surprised to be seated on United’s first Dreamliner flight, and much less surprised to find the plane’s delivery was delayed. It’s a rough trip, flying all night through Houston, a three and a half hour layover and then on to San Jose, Costa Rica. What’s nice is that you don’t waste a day traveling. You arrive early afternoon, and you’re able to get to your home away from home that evening, in them for a good meal and a good night’s sleep. Expect long lines at Immigration. It can take as long as an hour to get to the front of the line – not much different than the respect the US pays to its tourists lined up and ready to spend buckets full on money in our country.
Rental cars are cheap – only $86 for 5 days, but once you’re done with taxes, fueling, and, of course, insurance, Hertz’ final fill was $320 for a total clunker with a lawnmower engine! I didn’t mind. My plan was to drive directly to Monte Azul, park, and fire up the clunker for the return to the airport early Friday morning.
It’s generally a 3-hour drive to Monte Azul, but Monday afternoon, there was an inordinate amount of traffic, heavy fog at the top of the mountain, and rain and bad windshield wipers coming into San Isidro del General. Daylight savings time the day before guaranteed darkness on the rocky road up the mountain to Monte Azul. I finally pulled in just before, fried from ultimate concentration and definitely ready for a margarita, made from Costa Rica’s own version of clear alcohol, guaca.
After 38 hours with little or any sleep, sleep didn’t show up that night. I tossed and turned in my beautiful casita with its comfortable bed and open windows with the soothing sounds of the rushing river just outside my door. Regardless, I had a date for the Cloudbridge hike, about 6 kilometers further up Chirippo.
Breakfast and dinner are included during your stay at Monte Azul, and who could resist this delicious breakfast of bacon, a poached egg, fried hash browns de la casa, on a bed on spinach (espinaca in Spanish). With this excellent breakfast, prepared by Monte Azul’s in-house trained Chef Estaban, accompanied by fresh fruit and Monte Azul’s own home-grown and roasted coffee, who wouldn’t be ready for a 5-6 mile hike?
Carlos was my guide during the three intense days of Spanish immersion. I have to say that it is not Monte Azul’s expertise to provide Spanish immersion, but it is their expertise to cater to their clients’ every whim. When I was there in April, I mentioned my desire for a few days of Spanish immersion to move from that ever-lingering plateau we all experience when learning something with passion. I had met Carlos during the April trip and liked him very much. Owners Randy and Carlos, and their manager Adrian, assured me that they could deliver a customized immersion tour to cater to my particular interests – nature and food. And, deliver they did!!!
The Chirippo area is massive in size and small in the number of people, but, even though it appears the community is small, the small, rocky dirt roads go on forever. When one tours with an involved citizen like Carlos, one is able to grasp the sense of family amongst the entire community, its communal beliefs and the community’s protective nature. When we parked at the of our walk, all of the people in the little cafe greeted Carlos. An elderly man talked, in Spanish, of course, in detail about a meeting at 6 that afternoon (it’s not nighttime until after 7pm). It appears that big, greedy corporations are able to stick their fingers into just about everywhere. There is a greedy corporate effort to divert the beautiful rivers of the area to creat a dam and energy, they say, on behalf of the community. Too many of us have seen the sad results of man messing with nature. Carlos and his friends have created a huge group to fight the effort. I so hope they are successful.
Up the mountain we go. It was a beautiful walk. The only problem was, for me, that the trail was steep, rocks were loose, areas were slippery from the massive amounts of rain from the previous two months, crossing creeks is just plain scary to me these days with my evolving lack of balance, AND silly me forgot my ‘baston’ – walking stick. I managed to fall only three times without injury. It was a beautiful walk, but had Carlos said anything beyond the five-mile distance, I might not have experienced it. There are ‘cascadas’ – small waterfalls, and ‘cataratas’ – large waterfalls. We saw both. Several men on horseback passed us by. A few were carrying large jugs of fresh, local cow’s milk on the way to the cooperative milk producer. The milk goes from horses to San Gerardo about 2 km away and is then incorporated and trucked an hour or so away to San Isidro del General where it is pasteurized and sold in its organic form.
It was a beautiful walk, harrowing, rewarding and tiring after little or no sleep. We had an afternoon session back at Monte Azul. We sat at the bar in Monte Azul’s dining room/cafe for a few hours and talked through pictures and questions to practice vocabulary and grammar. I was then given my ‘novela’ assignment, a short story written by Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors, surrounding her world-famous book entitled Eva Luna. I was excited to dig in, but I must say, the writing of Isabel Allende, is full of fantasy and metaphor. Although I got the gist of the six pages, I ended up literally translating much of it, and much of that didn’t make sense at all when we finally reviewed the novela together on my last day.
Four-course dinners are a regular at Monte Azul. There’s always a soup, normally from a vegetable that is pureed without the use of dairy, but with an amazing richness – carrot, tomato, chayote are some excellent examples. Monte Azul had its own greenhouse, so the salad prepared each night comes with lettuce and other goodies straight from the greenhouse. One night, however, the salad was a delicious and lightly dressed and thinly sliced beet salad. Entrees are not normally Costa Rican. The first night was boneless chicken thighs in an orange sauce to meld with the orange slices and dressing on the salad. Fish filets were criss-crossed over bok choy and rice the following night. A beautiful filet mignon sat on a thin slice of grilled watermelon the third night with some cubed potatoes and coarsely chopped mustard greens (this combo tasted EXACTLY like Brussels sprouts, my favorite!!). The final night, I had a delicious stuffed red snapper.
Desserts are varied as much as the other courses. I had never heard of ‘manzana de agua’ – water apples before. They’re indigenous to Costa Rica with a similar taste taste to an apple but a more fibrous and soft texture, delicious in a torte. A molten chocolate cake with ice cream, some custard with fresh fruit and puff pastry slices were other desserts served. It’s a heck of a lot of food, a lot of which I felt guilty about not eating.
My second full day consisted of a hike in the reserve. Carlos and I learned early that morning that after three days and 7 baby goats being born from three of the reserve’s goats (Randy makes the most amazing cheese from their milk), Randy learned that the fourth mother had two stillborn babes yet to deliver. Unable to get a local vet to assist, Randy and one of his assistants had to put the mother into the back of a truck and make the hour-long drive to San Isidro del General to try to save the mother. Turns out, the mother and the female baby were saved. Only the male baby was lost. When we were last in Monte Azul in April, Randy had four goats and about 6 chickens. The chickens are now gone, but 36 goats remain!! Can you believe it? A few of the mother goats had a virus, so all of the babies had to be fed manually with milk from the other mothers. Henry, pictured with me below, spent the entire night in his truck, looking after the flock. The mid-size babies were able to feed from a bucket with ‘nipples’. The newborns, however, some 16 of them after the long week, had to be fed completely by hand. I was happy to oblige. They are the most adorable and loving animals!! Henry’s family was the previous owner the the reserve. It was a producing dairy farm at the time, so Henry’s somewhat of an expert.
After a quick break, Carlos and I headed to pick up his youngest son from kindergarten and then an afternoon of cooking yucca, learning Costa Rican colloquialisms, songs and culture. I didn’t think I liked yucca, but not at all the case. Milagro, Carlos’ wife, took the roots that Carlos dug up from the garden, and did an excellent job of showing how yucca is cleaned, cooked, shredded, made into patties and fried. Pretty much anything goes into the yucca mixture. Milagro tried celery with a batch, and it was delicious. Interesting, yucca is eaten every day in Paraguay instead of the other more popular starches of Latin American and Spanish cooking.
Carlos and Milagro’s home is simple but comfortable with a strong feeling of a loving home. It was so nice to have their son Matteo there to fill the air with joy and the sense of family. (With full grown kids, that feeling comes to my family only in spurts.) I had purchased Isabel Allende’s collection of short stories on my iPad’s Kindle app so that I could take advantage of the built-in Spanish dictionary, so I was able to return the borrowed book. In the meantime, Matteo began to get restless in anticipation of our food, and I promptly turned over my iPad with the Doodle app up and running. This little boy, with little if any experience with an iPad or its apps, commenced to draw and ‘stamp’, make sounds from within the app, color, fill, you name it. He even found the Angry Birds app and was off and running faster than a newborn colt. It was amazing to all of us!!
With just enough time remaining, Carlos took me to meet his neighbor and expert coffee grower and roaster, Hugo. Hugo was in the process of hand-roasting his best coffee in a cast iron skillet on a wood-burning stove. Hugo was very kind to explain the varieties of coffee grown in Costa Rica, how small farms like his band together in coops to use shared roasting machinery to roast quantities of coffee. Interestingly, coffee has a similar tasting and grading method as wine. ‘Catadors’, experts, use the aerated inhale process to grasp the true nature of the coffee, and they always spit the coffee out, for the exact opposite reason winetasters do the same, in addition, of course, to helping maintain their pallets. They concurred with an earlier statement by a gentleman in the airport that, the higher the altitude the grapes are grown, the richer and higher the quality. We were at about 1000 feet with a good 7000 to go up Chirippo.
Hugo prepared the coffee in a drip filter ‘fuerte’, strong. It was absolutely delicious!!! Lucky for me, I got to be family that afternoon, and Hugo graciously sold me the 500g of coffee he has just roasted. I won’t even dare to tell you the price of this marvelous coffee made with love.
Carlos and I returned to Monte Azul for the final two hours of lessons. My brain was fried, and after reviewing the Isabel Allende story, I took out my list of generic and less taxing questions to review. I guess it was apparent to the Monte Azul staff that I was stuffed with knowledge, and an offer of a Margarita made with Guaca was accepted by both Carlos and me. Randy joined us, we laughed, told stories, raised a toast to the successful birthing of the goats and the successful graduation of one gringo from San Francisco.