Central America, Costa Rica, food, Travel, vegan, vegetarian

Green eating Costa Rica: a veggie traveller hotspot

Costa Rica is possibly one of the most progressive countries in the world: last year, 100% of energy supplied to homes was from renewable sources, it has no army, a University of Peace, endless eco-projects, a focus on green tourism… and so naturally it also has a large veggie/vegan population. Although the average meal will cost considerably more than in other Latin American countries, the towns have an undeniably hippie vibe, and there are a plethora of little veggie and vegan cafes and restaurants to get stuck into.

Dominical is one of many such little surfer beach towns I visited on my travels, and although all the restaurants offered veggie options something kept drawing me back to Café Mono Congo. With an enormous menu of both veggie and vegan choices of various tastes, there was something for everyone. I became addicted to their giant breakfast burritos: stuffed with rice, beans, avocado, plantain, salsa picante, and a choice of egg or tofu, and optional cheese.

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They also had a zesty quinoa salad, smoky bean stew, lasagna stuffed with veggies, curry, vegan beers and cider (god I’ve missed cider), fresh smoothies, incredible coffee, and a huge fridge full of brownies, buns, tartlets and other treats. Next door was the best health food shop I’ve seen in my travels, packed to the gills with tofu/seitan meats, hummus, baba ganoush, vegan cheese, fresh local fruit and veg, wholegrains, pulses, natural treatments and anything else the ethical grocery shopper might ever dream of.

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Mandala was sadly the only restaurant I had time to visit in the vast array of veggie places in San Jose, but I was not disappointed by the unusually delicate tasting (and hard to find) Thai curry. They also made the best natural lemonade (served in a hipster jar, but forgivable for the flavour).

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In Montezuma, which I think may be my spiritual home, every restaurant has awesome veggie options including hummus, falafel, curries, salads etc. and so most of the time I didn’t even have to bother looking for veggie restaurants. Although it was tasty, I was slightly disappointed with the rather expensive salad at Café Organico, but they do host live music some evenings so it’s worth checking out.

The best surprise here was that the ice cream place Ice Dream which, as well as selling some delish looking dairy free sorbets, makes these vegan tofu veggie rolls which are both incredible looking and tasting- especially with the peanut dipping sauce!

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In Santa Teresa, you can’t miss having lunch at Olam Pure Food. I wanted to eat everything on the menu, but being slightly hungover ordered the vegan pizza. What I got I wouldn’t exactly call a pizza- the wholegrain crust was tasty but decidedly not bread, and the tofu cheese was soft rather than melty- but nevertheless it was delicious and satisfying, and all natural.

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Tamarindo was my final stop, and at Pura Vegan I ate the best red Thai curry of my life: the first genuinely spicy thing I’d had in months, rich and full of flavour, I couldn’t stop eating but I didn’t want it to end. I’m genuinely sad now thinking how I will never get to eat it again.

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Given that at home my diet is mostly made up of hummus and gin, I was delighted to address the chronic hummus deficiency I’ve suffered from while travelling at the Falafel Bar, which I visited multiple times to have variations of falafel, hummus, and shakshuka. Apparently people are such fans of the place you can even by shirts and hats celebrating the falafel bar. As amazing as the food was, I’m not sure I’m enough of a falafel enthusiast to commit to a hat…. though if someone can find me a hummus hat, I’d gladly show it off everywhere I go.

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The good thing in Costa Rica is, if you’re short of cash, it’s for once very easy to make the cheap food in local restaurants veggie: casadas are the omnipresent plato typico for Costa Ricans, and there is usually a version vegetariana that contains just rice, beans, plantain, avocado, eggs, and cheese (you could probably even ask to skip the dairy if you’re vegan, you’ll just get a funny look. Filling, not (too) unhealthy, and easy on the wallet, I ended up eating a lot of these… and an interesting note to leave on- apparently they are called a casada  (which means married)-  because the saying is that if you marry a Tico (Costa Rican) woman, that is the meal you will end up eating for the rest of your life. Could be worse!

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Central America, Travel

Swimming with starfish: Panama is paradise

Imagine the perfect paradise island: soft white beaches shaded by palm trees, cool, crystal clear water lapping the shore, starfish bejewelling the ocean floor, and literally no one for miles around…. except the Panamanian ‘pirate’ that has just cracked open a fresh coconut with his machete for you to pour your rum into.

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You spend your days lying in the sand, drinking, chatting, reading, taking dips in the sea to cool off. You scuba-dive for an hour or two and see what the ocean is hiding: a beautiful array of corral, and millions of brightly coloured fish. In the evenings you share food and cold beers with people from around the world, and spend your nights sleeping in hammocks. This is how I spent four days meandering by boat from Colombia to Panama with San Blas Adventures.

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Panama was another surprise for me. I nearly didn’t even bother going, because I’d heard how the culture was totally Amercicanised, how expensive it was, and how uninteresting Panama City is (except the canal).

However, I needed to get from Colombia to Central America somehow. I didn’t want to fly, and it’s impossible to take a bus because the Darién Gap is too dangerous: if the gangsters and drug traffickers don’t get you, you’ll probably just get killed by something in the vast jungle.

It was way out of my budget, but I have no regrets, because sailing through the San Blas Islands was my second-favourite experience travelling in Latin America, honestly just because it was another chance to be completely secluded from civilisation and be absorbed in totally natural beauty without distractions.

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It wasn’t all idyllic: being that remote, there’s obviously no plumbing, and so it was several days of latrines over the sea. The first island wasn’t too bad, I just felt sorry for the fish you could see darting about below the drop hole, and wondered what they must think of the impending shit bombs crashing into their tranquil homes out of nowhere. Later days were worse: when the wind was strong, sometimes the sea water washed people’s…  deposits back up at you when you perched on the edge of the seat. Mmm. We also had bucket showers, which I find actually kind of refreshing in the heat, but nevertheless after four days of island life there was a part of me that was glad to return to a proper bed and a decent shower in Panama City. I also never wanted to drink rum again in my life. If you’ve ever been horrifically hungover on a speedboat in tropical heat you’ll know what I mean.

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In Panama City, the canal museum is far too expensive to visit (at least for me) but if you get a free ticket for the restaurant (also absurdly expensive) you can just buy a drink and watch the boats come through. It’s worth doing but not life-changing. But after one day of recovery from island life I was desperate to get back to it, and so took the worst night bus of my life to get to Bocas del Toro.

It was worth it. Bocas Del Toro is an archipalego of the most stunning Caribbean islands on the north-east coast of Panama. The vibe is muy tranquilo and the islands, which you can visit by water taxi from Bocas town on Isla Colon, are further secluded little paradises tucked away from reality. Opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling are abundant, and there is even a ‘sloth island’. Red Frog beach would have been the most perfect beach I’ve experienced, had I not just experienced a week living in paradise.

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So, on Panama: don’t miss it. Skip the cities and get down with island life. It doe s mean adapting to ‘island time’ where anything can occur within a couple of hours of when it’s supposed to, and if you order lunch prepare to waste your whole afternoon waiting for it to show up: but a slower pace of life was exactly what I needed to recover as I was just over the halfway point of my travel, and it prepared me for the culture of pura vida when I crossed over the border to my next highly anticipated destination: Costa Rica!