On Food and Cooking – Costa Rica

When we packed up the house in Toronto, it was shocking and upsetting how much food we had to throw out. I felt sick to my stomach looking at the amount of food waste. Since we started traveling, we’ve mostly had to walk to the grocery store, which of course limits how much we can buy in one trip. We managed to leave Ocotal CR (our first stop) with a bare fridge and left behind only a small amount of dry beans for the next people. For the most part, this has continued to be true at each place we have left so far and I’m learning a lot about how to be mindful about what we are buying to avoid food waste. We still tend to have quite a bit of leftovers from each meal as it’s really difficult to predict how hungry the boys will be from meal to meal.

I have been doing significantly less of the meal planning and preparation than I was used to at home. We still cook most of our meals ourselves because eating meals out all the time would be cost prohibitive. Robin and I do almost all the meal planning and shopping together and he’s been preparing about half of the meals. This is new territory for me but I’m getting used to it – perhaps too used to it 😉

While we were in Costa Rica, we tried to cook meals that are typical of the culture and when we did eat meals out, we mostly ate typical Tico food as well – at least Robin and I did – it was difficult to convince the kids to opt for something other than burgers and pasta when it was on offer. A typical Costa Rican meal is called Casado and it consists of rice and beans, vegetables and a protein. It’s a very simple, balanced meal and Robin was very pleased to be able to eat like this almost all the time as this is his preferred type of meal.

We had the opportunity to try 2 of our top 100 foods while we were in Costa Rica. The first was #28 Gallo Pinto – we tried making it on our own as well as sampling it from a local soda and a home cook at one of the airbnbs we stayed at. Gallo Pinto is made from precooked rice, beans, red pepper, onion and a seasoning called Salsa Lizano that tastes a little like Worcestershire sauce (but not quite). This is the recipe I used and it turned out pretty close to what we had elsewhere. Everyone enjoyed it although I don’t think the kids are going to be opting to switch from their usual breakfast to Gallo Pinto anytime soon.

Our attempt at Gallo Pinto
Gallo Pinto that came as part of a typical Tico breakfast at one of the places we stayed – Finca de las Lluvias de Gloria – in Monteverde. Hermida was our host and she was a wonderful cook!

The second food from our top 100 list that we got to try in CR was #73 Granizado – basically a snowcone. You can get these anywhere, in any flavour, with or without powdered milk for about 1000 CRC (~$2.30 CAD). The boys tried several from the many cart vendors on the beach in Ocotal and Coco and then closed out our time in Costa Rica with a mint granziado from a place called Penguino Granizado in Jaco (Kieran is a huge penguin fan, so this was a big deal for him). I’m not personally a big fan of the granizado but it was naturally a favourite for the boys.

Top row – mint granizado from Pinguino, bottom row – beach granizado, both cherry con leche (milk).

One down… lots more to come

We’ve reached the end of our first major stop. After 28 mostly sunny and hot days we boarded our flight for Quito, Ecuador (by way of Bogota) on Tuesday afternoon.

We chose Costa Rica for our first month for a few reasons. The first was a chance for me to share with the rest of the family some of my special memories. Costa Rica was the first place I travelled to independently (I spent a month there in 2001). The trip was truly an eye-opening and confidence building experience – one that holds a very special place in my heart. I was pretty excited about the chance to return to some of those experiences, share and relive some of the magic and see how the country has changed twenty years on.

For the most part, I found the country much as I did the first time I visited. The people were warm and friendly, navigating the variable infrastructure was a real adventure and the natural sites were unbelievable. There were definitely signs of change as well. It is no longer quite the travel bargain it used to be (I spent about $1,500 in total living and exploring there for a month in 2001), San Jose (the capital city) has developed into a considerably more modern destination, and the number of tour operations and ways to spend your tourist dollars everywhere have grown exponentially. All in all still a magical place.

There were two other reasons in my mind when scheduling Costa Rica first. We wanted a slow-paced month to ease into the travel lifestyle and a sunny destination to help us forget the Canadian winter. I’m less sure these rationale turned out well. We spent seventeen days at our first destination (Playa Ocotal) and I think we all thought it was too long – by the middle of the second week we were ready to dive into more activity and adventure than was easy to find close to Ocotal.

As for the sun, it turns out we may have got a little too much of a good thing – Wendy and Kieran in particular found the heat (highs averaging 32-35 plus some humidity everywhere save Monteverde) pretty uncomfortable. On the plus side.. we’ve learned something about our comfort with heat as a family and will make some adjustments to the plan going forward to compensate.

In terms of highlights there is little doubt that, in Costa Rica, nature takes first prize. We got to spot a number of nifty creatures in the wild (howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, sloths, iguanas, scarlet macaws, kinkajous, pit vipers and tarantulas to name a few). We ticked off three of our top 100 experiences (scuba, surfing and zip-lining), two of our top 100 foods and one of our top 100 sights (stay tuned for posts about food and sights).

We visited at least six beautiful beaches during our time in Costa Rica (Coco, Ocotal, Conchal, Tamarindo, Dominical and Manual Antonio). Kieran and Caleb both felt Dominical was their favourite: it had the best (biggest) waves and was the site of their surfing lesson (probably their favourite activity). Wendy and I chose Ocotal as our favourite – for it’s nice dark sand, calm waters and quiet, laid back vibe.

We also went on at least five amazing hikes, in National Parks at Rincon de la Vieja, Tenorio, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio and at the Private Reserve at Nauyaca Waterfalls. Here our favourites are more diverse. Kieran enjoyed Rincon de la Vieja the most – for it’s beautiful “Carteratas Congejas” hike and chance to swim under a waterfall. Caleb chose the Nauyaca Waterfalls for similar reasons (nice hike, great swimming). For Wendy, Monteverde, and in particular the suspension bridges over the Cloud Forest, was the most memorable. For me, the amazing blue waters and misty, high-elevation rainforest at Tenorio National Park took the cake.

It’s been a great beginning and we can’t wait for what comes next.

Until next time…

Surf’s Up

We’re spending our last week in Costa Rica a little further south, at a farm in Platanillo about 12km north of Playa Dominical.

Dominical is known mostly for being one of the great surfing beaches of Costa Rica and so it was a natural place for us to knock #87 of our list of Top 100 Experiences.

Caleb and Kieran took their first Surfing Lesson this morning, with the team at Sunset Surf. The class was targeted for beginners and the boys got lots of attention with two instructors and just one other student.

The goal of this lesson was getting them up on the board in a small wave and staying upright until they surfed to the beach – which sounds a lot easier than it is. The boys found staying low and keeping your balance to be pretty tricky but ultimately had some success. Easier for children to pick it up apparently, and I’m certainly glad nobody had to see what my first attempts would have looked like!

Caleb thought the experience was “totally awesome” and Kieran said “very fun”. I’m not sure how many more chances they will have to practice on the trip, but they were very happy to have the opportunity to give it a go.

There is a major surfing competition happening here tomorrow that will give us a chance to see what the pros look like.

Thanks to Yordy (pictured above with Kieran) and Luke (pictured above with Caleb) at Sunset for making the experience so rewarding for the boys.

Until Next Time…

My first dive

Yesterday we went to a diving place, called Rich Coast Diving in Coco, so that I could learn to dive. I wanted to learn to dive because it was really interesting thing that you can use to help the environment by picking up garbage in the Ocean. I also wanted to learn to dive because it would be a great thing that me and my mom can do over the trip together. We started by going to a pool and I learned how to do some diving skills like clearing my regulator and how to clear my mask when it has water, then my mom had to do some open water refresher skills like hovering and taking off her mask and putting it back on.

The next day we went to the dive shop at 7:45 am and walked to the beach to get the boat. Then we went to the dive site and got our stuff on and got ready to dive. When we got into the water I was nervous because we were going down 12m deep. When we got down there I was not nervous anymore because it was not actually that deep. We swam around for a bit and saw some fish and some eels but that was pretty much it for dive 1. We got a 25-30 minute break to rest and have a snack before going into the water again.

On the 2nd dive we saw a hawksbill turtle, some nudibranches (little sea cucumber-like things), a white tip reef shark, a round ray, jewel Moray eels and a giant Moray eel. It was very cool!

After the dive we had lunch a place called Best Burger and it was very good. When we got home I decided to ask my dad if I can get open water certified and then certified so I can collect garbage off the Ocean floor.


A short video of our dive!

Hitting a groove

Week 2 is in the books and we’re starting to have a bit more going on. We rented a car for a few days this week and have gotten out to see more of the country we are enjoying this month.

The two primary draws in Costa Rica are beaches and national parks (for amazing wildlife and natural sights) and we’ve done a little bit of both. Beach highlights include visits to Playa Conchal (made up of tiny sea shells in place of sand) and Playa Tamarindo (one of Costa Rica’s famous surfing beaches). We also hiked in two spectacular national parks built around volcanoes, Tenorio and Rincon de la Vieja.

You can see more pictures from these adventures on our instagram feed and we’ll talk more about them later in the month.

This week we also succeeded in knocking our first “Top 100 Experience” off the list. Zip-lining (#42) was invented in Costa Rica by a US Biologist studying rainforest eco-systems in 1979. It was 18 years later when a Canadian man had a vision for the money-making potential of offering this experience to tourists at Parque Nacional Monteverde in Costa Rica (our next stop) and not long after that the activity spread to many other countries.

Caleb, Kieran and Wendy all gave it a go at Congo Trail near Playa del Coco (who have been running zip lining tours for 20 years, almost since the beginning). I’ve ziplined here in Costa Rica before and elsewhere, and, like most “thrill-ride” activities I can take it or leave it. The reviews from our crew were good – though this course lacked some of the really long cables (>1km!) that we did last year in Mexico.

The experience that left the biggest impact on us this week, though, was our morning spent at the Monkey Farm. The farm started out as a rescue centre for injured howler monkeys, but has expanded their vision to focus more on the volunteers who run the farm. The volunteers are all recovering addicts from Costa Rican communities who work therapeutically with the horses on the farm, support the monkeys and manage a sustainable organic farming operation. We enjoyed meeting some of the volunteers, touring the facilities and learning about how they are all working together to build a better life.

Until next time …

Finding a rhythm

The first week of the trip has come and gone, more or less as planned.

January has been planned for some time as an “ease in” month to begin our journey. We are spending pretty much all of the month in Costa Rica, where the weather is very warm, and not moving around much. The idea was to relax and recharge, get through the period at the beginning of all trips where your mind is on what you left behind as much as where you are, and to begin to develop the habits and routines that will carry us through the next 500 days.

This is especially true of our first stop here in Costa Rica at Playa Ocotal. We are staying here for 17 days, one of our longest stops of the trip. And, while there are a few highlight sights and activities nearby, we haven’t visited any of them in our first seven days. Our last week has been filled instead with lazy afternoons, long walks by the beach and figuring out how to incorporate some learning into each day for the boys.

We’re starting to develop some routines, but it’s very much still a work in progress. We’re all finding time for Spanish lessons (via Duolingo) and lots of reading and the boys are doing a little bit of math (via Khan Academy), some impromptu research (Dad, why is the wind blowing so hard today?) and writing (usually the hardest task to convince the boys to do). We’re adjusting to spending all day together pretty well, and finding ways to keep our day satisfyingly (but not stressfully) full without work, school and commuting occupying the vast majority of the time.

It’s a big change in the flow of the day, very much helped along by the midday heat here, which keeps us from wanting to do too much between about 10 and 4. We spend most of our time hiding from the sun at home (resting, reading or schoolwork), swimming in one the pools on our property or hanging out at the beach (mostly Ocotal so far).

Playa Ocotal Art Project and environmental statement, courtesy of the local “Ninos del Sol” school.

We have two beautiful beaches within walking distance. Playa Ocotal, about 15 minutes walking to the South and Playa del Coco, about 25 minutes walking to the North – both made from black volcanic (and magnetic!) sand.

Playa del Coco is one of the oldest Beach communities in this part of the country. There are restaurants, accommodations and small shops aplenty. Playa Ocotal, by comparison, is clean and quiet, still very much in development in terms of tourist appeal. No cell signal, one restaurant only, great snorkelling and lots of space to stretch out – just our speed.

We’re finding our way, but not yet fully acclimatized to the life of the full time adventurer. I suspect finding that perfect rhythm of expanding our minds, feeding our family bonds and focusing on our own self reflection will be a long term project. Suggestions welcome.

Until next time…

Kieran’s pre-departure thoughts (posted a little late)


How I feel about the trip:

OK, here is how I and I only, feel about the trip. Well I’m kinda 50/50 between excited and nervous. So this is my document and I will explain everything and I mean everything.

Things I’m excited about

  1. The experience.
  2. The traveling.
  3. the fun.
  4. the plane rides.
  5. the work.

Things I’m nervous about

  1. Trying new food
  2. not having wifi.
  3. Missing my friends.
  4. Missing my family.
  5. not having hot water.

Food and Drinks that I’m excited about trying.

Pig brains
Frog leg
Different fruit
Tree leaves

Coconut water
Different kinds of sodas
Fruity juices

Well that was mostly all I have to say about my pre-departure thoughts.

Packing for Four

As we were preparing to leave, a lot of people asked what we were planning to take with us for the next 17 months. We will be “following the sun”, as Robin likes to put it, so the whole time we’re traveling temperatures will range from the current 32-33 degrees Celsius we are experiencing, to daytime lows in the mid-teens (overnight low will be closer to 4-5 degrees C). Robin decided long ago that he and the boys will take carry-on sized 40L backpacks (the Osprey Farpoint40 for him and Caleb and the Fairview40 for Kieran). I was very unsure about how I could possibly fit everything I would need (ha, and want) for 17 months into a 40L backpack and even spent more time than was probably reasonable discussing this with my boss during some of our one-on-ones in the last months before the trip. In fact, it was those very conversations that finally helped me make the decision to go with a 36L wheeled conversion bag plus a 24L backpack. I was still a little skeptical about whether I could Marie Kondo my packed necessities enough to get everything into even this configuration of luggage.

Robin finished planning and acquiring everything he is going to need for the next 17 months quite some time ago and trial packed about a week in advance of the trip. Me, not so much – I packed my bags for the first time on Dec 30. 

Lots of people want to know what we finally brought with us…Robin is a minimalist by nature and I don’t think this was actually that difficult for him and indeed, I think he rather relishes the idea that he can live for a year and a half out of a pack that can be carried onto an aircraft.

The basics of Robin’s packing list includes:

  • 3 t-shirts
  • 1 tank top
  • 2 long sleeved shirts
  • 1 hoodie
  • 1 raincoat
  • 2 shorts
  • 2 pants
  • 4 pairs socks/underwear
  • 2 pairs of shoes (running shoes and sandals)
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 travel towel

Plus of course basic toiletries and electronics. All of Robin’s clothing (except the 2 pairs of pants) are Merino wool. He will be rigorously testing the claims about Merino wool’s antibacterial (and anti-stink) properties and I certainly hope for a successful outcome. He seems (to me) to have an inordinate amount of camera gear but that will really be his hobby as we are traveling.

We already have a difficult time getting the boys to change their clothes regularly, so having express permission to wear the same few articles of clothing over an over will certainly not be an issue for them. I got them some new t-shirts that they  were forbidden from wearing until we left and they each brought just what the really need for 5-7 days. I had packed them in their bags on several trips plus summer camp over the past year so I was very confident that everything they need would fit and that they were also both able to manage carrying their own packs.

As for me…I felt intimidated and overwhelmed by packing right up until the end. I had this little collection of things that I thought I might want to bring with me but it was way too much stuff. I had a real fear of not having something I might want, or being otherwise uncomfortable, that I needed to overcome. I think the best advice I received (from a follow global traveler) on this topic was: don’t plan to change your normal style too much when planning a travel wardrobe. So as I started to pare down my collection of possible items, I tried to keep this in mind. Outside of work I generally wear a variety of comfortable clothes that I feel good in and I spent some time looking back on some of the photos from past trips, noticing that my style hasn’t changed very much, if at all, over the course of nearly 2 decades. If that “Little Miss Bossy” t-shirt still fit me (Australia/New Zealand 2007), you better believe it would be coming along.

After several wardrobe reviews with Robin’s mom, Simon, and finally a group of friends at our going away party, I was able to narrow it down to a collection that I felt comfortable with and that would fit in my bags, including all the medication for all of us!

So finally, here’s what I ended up with:

  • 7 tank tops
  • 5 t-shirts
  • 2 blouses
  • 2 long sleeves tops
  • 2 zip hoodies
  • 3 dresses (2 casual, 1 little black dress)
  • 1 shorts
  • 2 capri tights
  • 1 quick-dry capris
  • 1 long cotton tights/1 athletic tights
  • 1 pair jeans
  • pajamas
  • 7 socks/14 underwear/4 bras
  • 3 sandals, 1 pair running shoes
  • raincoat
  • vest
  • travel towel

I did bring some make-up (very minimal), dry shampoo, hair gel, and a travel sized straightening iron in addition to the usual toiletries that you would expect. So you can see, I wasn’t exactly minimalist in my packing – at least relative to Robin and the boys – and yet, it still all fit without too much trouble. I even expect that eventually I will send some of this home to myself if I’m not using it after a few months.

Not the most exciting post but answers some questions that we were frequently asked. If you want to know anything else, drop a comment!

And we’re off!!!

10 years of planning, 2 weeks of packing (including one very late night last night) and countless dreams and discussions later, we depart this morning on our journey together.

Destination #1 is Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica where we hang out for then next 17 days, a relaxing warmup for the adventures ahead. A 5.5 hr flight to Liberia and a short drive from there is the itinerary. We are all full of emotion this morning as say goodbye to Toronto for 18 months: excited for what lies ahead, sad to leave our friends and family behind for now and uncertain about how the reality of this journey will line up with one we’ve been imagining for so long.

Thanks to all who reached out with best wishes as we got ready to depart, and apologies to anyone we may have missed saying a direct goodbye to. Watch this space as the journey begins to unfold…