IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FOOD – PART ONE (well maybe part 125 by now)

Tracey says “you always say you travel for the food, but you haven’t really written about it.”

Well, here it goes.

As a chef, I learned that Mexico has one of the five ‘master’ cuisines, along with India, China, France, and the fifth one which I cannot remember (too many Pisco Sours I guess).  Mexico did not disappoint – Standouts included:

  • Menudo:  a tripe soup with fresh oregano, onions and lime in a thin broth with hominy. One of my all-time favourites.
  • Limonata:  a wonderful fresh lime juice with a touch of sugar and sparkling water.  This was made outstandingly by the bartender on the Mazatlan ferry.
  • Horchata:  a rice-based drink with vanilla and cinnamon.  Wow!  Made in a small village near Mezcal.
  • Hot Chocolate:  made fresh for Tracey.  The chocolate was ground in a mortar and pestle, added to rich milk, and cooked on a tin sheet – over a cactus wood fire no less.

I don’t think we had a bad meal in Mexico. We searched out roadside stands and only ate inside once!  The people are eager to add complex spices to the meals and the freshness was outstanding.

I have to mention the Chorizo.  Being a sausage freak, I was happy to try out every variation of sausage to be found. Where was the best? Easy answer! We stopped at a roadside stand in Guatemala, where a man with a mop was brushing his grill with water to create steam for the cooking sausages. They were amazing! Just the right amount of smoke and stuffed with a very herbal mixture. I could have stayed at this roadside stand for a week.

Antigua,Guatemala surprised me. Confit? That’s what the menu says. Do they actually cook them in the melted goose fat?  I must order it to find out.  It’s just OK – not completely traditional, but the ambience and the 35 year old rum contributed to a great night out. The Sangria was pretty good too and Tracey said the bread pudding was her favourite.  This same night we had an aperitif of hibiscus flowers and aguardiente (fire water) a great blend, not too toxic and very unique!

Nicaragua. In Leon we went to a traditional restaurant and I had the local specialty ‘Chanco con Yucca’ otherwise known as Sauerbraten. It was a fermented/pickled pork roast with a southern twist!

Gallo Pinto – rice and beans – all the time, everywhere – you can’t escape them.  The same with Pollo Asado – roast chicken. In Mexico I kept screaming ‘pollo asado’ every time we passed a sign advertising roast chicken, harping on about getting some. Never had any the entire time we were in Mexico. Good thing, Seven countries later and it is the only thing on every menu and most times the only thing on the menu. I’m ready for something different. Oh, the Gallo Pinto was best in El Salvador.

Motoring down the highway in Costa Rica, we spot a couple of semi trucks out in front of a restaurant and a couple of  local workers seem to be enjoying their meal inside. The decision is made, we pull in.  Uh Oh, it is a Chinese restaurant.  Well let’s try it anyway. One of the best chow meins we have ever had!

Panama forgot how to cook.  No salt, no spices, no flavour?  We ended up cooking our own food here, not for lack of trying the local fare. We went down to the ‘row’ where all the best restaurants were and……. Still the same result. Pack your own lunch here.

From Panama we hopped onboard the Stahlratte.  One night we set up a grill on the beach and made skewers of some local fish. I did not see the fish but it’s meat was the toughest I have ever seen! I could not cut it with a knife let alone chew through it. Pass the salad.  Otherwise the food on the boat was quite enjoyable.  I volunteered to do the cooking for our merry band of 25 travellers for a couple of days and had fun rifling through the galley and trying to build a meal. Thanks Ludwig for letting me play.

Colombia beckons. Stayed tuned it starts to get funky now.



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Mucho lluvia – lots of rain.

But not that much and not when we are out.

Many people have commented that we need water wings or scuba gear for this trip. While it is entirely true that we have commented about the rain, it is not a continuous thing. It just seems like the adventures have been happening around it.

A quick recap:

  • USA – ten minutes of rain while we are at a gas station.
  • Mexico – 2 minutes while at a market and a great thunderstorm, while in the comfort of a room with a great view.
  • Guatemala – maybe an hour, can’t remember where.
  • El Salvador – rained just as we got our hotel sorted in La Libertad. Rained hard the next morning all the way to the Honduras border.
  • Honduras – rained at the border then cleared up.
  • Nicaragua – Rained as we came into Leon.
  • Costa Rica – rained at the border, then again as we entered La Fortuna. Rained big-time from San Jose to just before the Panama Border.
  • Panama – rained a bit at David.

So looking back we actually only got good and wet a couple of times. The side benefit is that it is usually very light and usually still a hundred degrees outside. We probably could have stayed dry in most places by choosing to get a hotel a bit earlier or lunch a bit later.

In ten thousand kilometers it is amazing that we have only really been caught in one big storm – in Costa Rica while climbing out of San Jose, heading over the mountains and toward the ocean. (Incidentally, this is where we saw a perfectly good jetliner parked beside a river in the jungle. No idea how it got there or why!) The flooding in Nicaragua was caused upstream from where we were, so we got wet from the bottom up on that one.

The rain that I encounter during my commute from Calgary to Red Deer every week is a lot more unpleasant!

We are still laughing.  We knew this was the rainy season and it has actually been far less unpleasant than we were prepared for.  The Ural continues to allow us an opportunity to experience our world through the smells, the sights and the smiles of the locals.

Oh, I have stopped chastising Tracey for bringing her hair dryer – I have been using it to dry my boots out!

Adios for now.


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Entering Costa Rica, it is immediately obvious that this country is different from most of the others in Latin America.  In a region of the world historically plagued by internal strife and civil wars, Costa Ricans are proud, peace-loving, and have no army. Roads are in good shape, homes are water-proof and have floors made of something other than earth, and shops carry more than the basic essentials.  And that is only what we notice in the first half hour.

Over the course of the afternoon and early evening, Miles tackles a rough, muddy, partially flooded road taking us along the northern shore of Lake Arenal to the tiny farming community of La Fortuna where we arrive a couple of hours after dark.  Another sign of the country’s prosperity arrives as I begin to search for a place to stay.  We are surrounded by swanky resorts.  After using my best negotiating skills, I come up with a rate of a mere $75 per night (half the usual rate).  This seems absurd now that we have become accustomed to decent accommodation for under $20.  We continue the search.  Miles spots a hotel that he somehow senses is the place for us.  He’s right.  Pulling into the driveway, we are greeted by the biggest smile we have seen in days.  Miles develops an immediate rapport with this hotel-owner and the two of them quickly negotiate a price of $21 per night including breakfast.  Seems like a deal.

We enjoy dinner at the hotel restaurant, sharing a bottle of wine and some fun conversation with our host, Florian.  He barely speaks English but is eager to learn.  Our Spanish is really quite pathetic but Florian is very patient with us.  We have quickly gained an affection for this warm and welcoming man who has made us feel very much at home.  He quickly taught us the expression “Pura Vida!”,Costa Rica’s unofficial slogan.  Over the next few days, each time that we ask Florian how he is doing, “Coma estas?”, his response is always, “Pura Vida”.  This is symbolic of the easygoing nature of this country’s people, politics, and personality.

Before retiring for the night, we undertake the challenging task of laying out all of our gear to dry.  Miles’ feet have been treading water in his boots for hours and my gloves are beginning to grow mold.  We use every possible hanging spot in the room and then sleep in dense humidity as we are surrounded by wet clothes, boots, and bags.

In the morning, we are blessed with sunshine and head into town visiting the central plaza, Catholic church, and some unusual shops.  When it’s time to head out, we find our Ural parked in by a van.  There is nothing to do but enjoy a cold drink while we wait.  “Pura Vida!”

Now we are off to the Rio Fortuna Waterfall.  As we head into the lush rainforest, I am hoping to see some of Costa Rica’s famed flora and fauna.  I’m certainly not disappointed.  During our hike down a steep path to the waterfall, we spot spectacular flowers and a tremendous variety of plant life spreading from the forest floor to the tops of the canopy.  The trunks of the tall trees are hosts to all sorts of vines and bromeliads and other plants grow out of every crevice.  Although we hear plenty of bird and animal noises nearby, we don’t spot any wildlife – other than several people enjoying a swim at the base of the waterfall.

On awakening the next morning, we enjoy the hotel’s amazing view of the Arenal Volcano.  This is one of the world’s most regularly active volcanoes with frequent powerful explosions sending cascades of red-hot lava rocks down the volcano’s steep slopes.  What we didn’t realize until arriving here is that the top of the volcano is almost always obscured by cloud and fog, so unless you embark on a dangerous climb, you are unlikely to see any of the activity.  But on this clear morning we were lucky enough to catch a rare view of the top of the volcano spewing smoke from the hot lava rocks within.

Florian and his wife bid us a fond farewell with a final and enthusiastic “con mucho gusto”.  We head south and into Talamanca Mountains.  Reaching higher altitudes, we are once again driving through cloud forests where we face steep climbs, pouring rain and avalanches.  But we make it through and in the western foothills, we arrive at our home for the night, San Isidrode El General.  The next morning we are off again and heading south on a route that follows the Pacific Ocean.  Despite the heavy rains, we enjoy views of the lushly forested mountains tumbling into the Pacific.  On the banks of the many rivers flowing into the ocean were mangrove forests and swamplands and we watch pelicans and herons flying above, feeding along the silted banks, and nesting high in the canopy.  A fitting end to our time in this eco-rich land.


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