Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

From Bonaire to the Antarctic by Way of Aruba

February 5th, 2010 at 10:30 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Today was day 1 of our five week journey to visit the Antarctic region. As we live on the small Caribbean island of Bonaire, a mere 12 degrees or so north of the equator, we’re actually already a lot closer to the Antarctic than perhaps any of the other people we will be meeting in Santiago for our group trip. But being closer does not mean it’s any easier to get to southern South America.

After researching our options, which including the possibility of flying four or five hours all the way up to the U.S. only to fly all the way back south, or the option of having a 15 hour connection in Guayaquil, Ecuador or Quito, Ecuador, we found that we could fly relatively painlessly from neighboring Aruba (only 80 miles west of Bonaire) to Santiago, Chile. From a travel time and hassle perspective, never mind price, this ended up being the best option.

The Traveling Richters at the Bonaire airport with 8 pieces of luggage and four carry-ons

The Traveling Richters at the Bonaire airport with 8 pieces of luggage and four carry-ons

What we didn’t count on was the challenge of getting all four of us and our luggage to Aruba from Bonaire. The problem is that the only planes that fly between islands are all relatively small and that means they too have luggage restrictions. After researching those options last month we finally settled on Tiara Air, which offers a roundtrip flight several times a week between Bonaire and Aruba, non-stop between the islands. We were able to arrange a deal where we purchased two additional seats (for a total of six) to ensure that we would not have to pay additional luggage fees, and a guarantee that all of our luggage would make it on the flight. The only downside was that we could only fly today, and could not change tomorrow’s flight from Aruba to Santiago, so we had to schedule an overnight in Aruba.

Our Tiara Air flight from Bonaire to Aruba - a Short 360-100 aircraft

Our Tiara Air flight from Bonaire to Aruba - a Short 360-100 aircraft

Tiara Air came through for us today, and we greatly appreciate it. The Short 360-100 aircraft they use for the flight is comfortable enough, although a bit tight for people with long legs, and the flight was quite smooth and short (45 minutes).

Aerial view of Kralendijk, Bonaire with a cruise ship in port

Aerial view of Kralendijk, Bonaire with a cruise ship in port

We arrive in Aruba at aircraft pad 13, where a bus takes us to the terminal

We arrive in Aruba at aircraft pad 13, where a bus takes us to the terminal

Once we arrived in Aruba, we grabbed our luggage, headed to our hotel in nearby Oranjestad, checked in and then went out in search for lunch. We found our meal right next door to our hotel at a place called “Cafe The Plaza”. The food quality and service was reasonable, but nothing really exciting.

After that we went out to find a pair of closed toed waterproof slip-ons for Bas, as he had outgrown his old set of Crocs. It took more than a half dozen beach-oriented stores to find a pair of Croc knock offs that fit him and were not in an offensive color (e.g. pink). He ended up with blue ones, as that was the only color available in his size.

As we wandered about in search of the shoes, we started noticing an over-abundance of jewelry stores. By my estimation, in the half hour of wandering we did to find the shoes and return to our hotel, we saw at least 15 jewelry stores. We were completely dumbfounded at how it might be possible for all of them to survive with such competition. I guess there’s a lot of loose money floating around here from somewhere.

Getting back to our room Linda discovered that both of the pairs of polarized Oakley sunglasses she had purchased in Chicago last summer were missing from her luggage, and while she believes this was a nefarious deed, we found nothing else missing. So, we ran out to a nearby sunglass shop and bought her some replacement glasses. She’ll need them when looking at ice, snow, and icebergs in about a week.

Linda buys two new sets of polarized sunglasses to replace the ones she can't find in the luggage

Linda buys two new sets of polarized sunglasses to replace the ones she can't find in the luggage

We capped off the evening with a couple of rousing games of Five Crowns, and dinner at a nearby Japanese restaurant (which employed only South Americans and Filipinos) by the name of Sushi-ya. Nice meal!

Dinner at Sushi-ya - we had the 'Sashimi de-luxe'

Dinner at Sushi-ya - we had the 'Sashimi de-luxe'

All the selected photos from the day (which includes those above and a number more) have been uploaded to my Flickr page.

I will mention that I probably will not be writing as detailed daily commentaries as this one once we’re further south due to time and bandwidth restrictions, and that will also, in turn, limit the number of photos I can share. So please don’t expect huge daily missives from us, but if you get aone occasionally, enjoy!

The next post will probably be late on Sunday after we’ve arrived in Santiago and spent the day out and about.


Dining Around – Minibar in D.C.

June 3rd, 2009 at 6:24 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The Traveling Richters have not traveled much in 2009, at least not so far. We spent a couple of weeks in Arizona and New Mexico in February, exploring red rocks, small bits of desert, art galleries, giant craters, Route 66, and ski slopes, but that’s been about it as my business travels have kept me away from home for pretty much the rest of the time.

The bar at Minibar has some nice ingredients on iceThat hasn’t stopped me from doing some exploration of my own in the various cities I’ve been visiting on business, and thus last night, I had the chance to dine at Minibar in Washington D.C., known for its difficult to obtain reservations (only six seats, two seatings nightly, five nights a week) and its outstanding fare. Minibar is set up like a sushi bar, and the featured cuisine is molecular gastronomy, which combines science with food ingredients to produce (sometimes) amazing culinary experiences. I made my reservation a month ago (the soonest you can book one of the prized spots at the bar at Minibar).

Our 26 course taste journey, spread out over about two hours, featured the following menu:

Pisco Sour
Olive Oil “Bon-Bon”
Beet “Tumbleweed”
“Bagels and Lox”
Steamed Brioche Bun with Caviar
Dragon’s Breath Popcorn
Boneless Chicken Wing
Blue Cheese and Almond
Cotton Candy Eel

Flavors & Textures
Zucchini in Textures
Green Almonds and “Raisins”
“Sundried” Tomato Salad
Smoked Oysters with Apples and Juniper
Salmon-Pineapple “Ravioli” with Crispy Quinoa
“Tzatziki” Salad
New England Clam Chowder
Parmesan “Egg” with Migas
Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad
“Philly Cheesesteak”

Kumquats & Pumpkin Oil

Frozen Yogurt and Honey
Thai Dessert

Sweet Endings
Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts – Mango Box – Saffron Gumdrop with Edible Wrapper

Minibar - Course 18 - Tzatziki SaladThe courses were all quite excellent, but I must say my favorites were the Tzatziki Salad (a spoom of Greek yogurt with juvenile cucumber flowers and garlic oil), the Philly Cheese Steak (a hollow bread filled with cheese foam and topped with Wagyu beef slices, and the Thai Dessert, which was like a Pad Thai in dessert form. The latter was the only one I failed to get a photo of during the evening.

The only mild negative was that the courses just kept coming a bit too quickly. But with the first seating at 6pm and the second at 8:30pm, I guess it’s kind of necessary.

The wait staff and chefs were attentive, willing to answer any question, no matter how odd or ignorant, and also very accommodating in explaining all aspects of their culinary arts. And my dinner companions were a delight to share the meal with as well – all of them strangers at the start of the meal and friendly acquaintances by the end.

I would highly recommend Minibar to anyone wanting to try molecular gastronomy and able to plan well in advance of a trip to Washington D.C. Photos from my culinary journey at Minibar can be found here.

Update: Just got a note about a post from Kristin Drohan, one of my dining companions that night at Minibar. Also, here’s a great play-by-play description of the same menu I enjoyed, written by friends of my friend Nell. My photos are better though 😉


We Leave the Galapagos, With Killer Whales As An Escort

November 23rd, 2008 at 1:25 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Our week in the Galapagos Islands went by almost too quickly. Every day seemed like it was the best day yet, and then the next day would be even better.

Along the way we’ve experienced marine iguanas grazing on algae underwater, a pod of over a hundred dolphins bow riding with the National Geographic Polaris (our home for the week), a baby Galapagos penguin being fed by its mother, snorkeled with white tip sharks, witnessed the mating rituals of blue footed boobies, and seen all sorts of other amazing acts and existence of nature. And perhaps the most amazing thing was how close we could get to the wildlife – the birds, sea lions, lizards, and iguanas cared not a whit that we were nearby. Made us feel part of nature as opposed to interlopers.

But yesterday (Friday), our last day of exploration, was definitely beyond expectation as a ship-wide call went out on the public address system that a pod of orcas (killer whales) had been sited nearby and that anyone who wanted a closer look had to be in the reception area within 5 minutes. I roused Linda and Krystyana from a mid-afternoon nap and we all made it down to the Zodiac launching point at Reception just in time. Bas was just not able to wake up enough to come along, sadly.

We spent the next twenty minutes in a Zodiac chasing orcas as they fed on a seal and a green turtle. It was a small pod – only three whales, but enough to keep us completely captivated. And thanks to the scraps their feeding left behind we had the added bonus of a huge flock of frigate birds chasing the pod to help tell us where the orcas were at any time.

A killer whale (orca) grabbed our attention off the coast of Santiago, Galapagos

A killer whale (orca) grabbed our attention off the coast of Santiago, Galapagos

We ended the day with an hour and half walk around part of Santiago island, learning more about fur seals (which are actually a species of sea lion), geology, lava tubes, and marine iguanas, ending the exploration with the best sunset of the week long trip.

This morning (Saturday), we parted ways with Lindblad’s Polaris and all the great memories of the trip, the excellent service we received while on board, and the phenomenal depth of knowledge of all the naturalists whom we had the pleasure to go on expeditions with. We took with us the nearly 4,000 pictures we shot during the past week (sorted down to about 1,000 that we think are pretty good but still need to tag and label).

Jake studies up on Peru, sharing a bench with a Galapagos resident

Jake studies up on Peru, sharing a bench with a Galapagos resident

We are now in Lima, Peru, departing early in the morning for Cuzco, and then the Sacred Valley of the Incas for a couple of days before making our way to overnight at Machu Picchu.


How To Eat A Guinea Pig in Ecuador

November 13th, 2008 at 11:49 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We arrived in Quito as scheduled, mid-morning on Tuesday. We took it easy our first day – eating, napping, and acclimating to the high altitude here. Yesterday we spent the day with a private guide and driver exploring local crafts markets and offerings in Otavalo as well as using my camera’s GPS to get us to the exact equator – 0 degrees latitude. Krystyana should be writing all that up in the next day or so, so let me focus on today’s activities, which started with a visit to the Museo Nacional de Banco Central del Ecuador where we learned about how man first came to Ecuador many thousands of years and how culture evolved here until Ecuador’s independence from Spain in 1822. Very interesting museum and well worth the three or so hours we spent there.

But the most unusual thing I did today (with Linda and Krystyana trying a nibble) was to dine on Guinea pig.

Warning: If you’re squeamish about eating unusual foods and creatures, especially cute and cuddly ones, please stop reading here, and especially don’t look at any of the pictures below.

Guinea Pigs in Ecuadoran Cuisine
Guinea pigs, in the time before beef cattle were introduced to the country, were the main staple meat among Ecuadoran indigenous peoples. However, beef, pork, and other meats did not completely displace Guinea pigs from the Ecuadoran diet, and “cuy” (as Guinea pigs are known in Ecuador) are still a widely eaten delicacy. It is claimed that they are very low in cholesterol – I have no way to confirm or deny that, but based on all I’ve been reading of late, high cholesterol foods don’t actually appreciably affect the cholesterol that clogs one’s arteries (blame sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup for that).

In terms of preparation, from what I’ve read, Guinea pigs used to be grilled on spits over open fires, but nowadays are either cooked on a rotisserie or deep fried. Below, for example, is a photo of a rotisserie with several Guinea pigs being cooked, found on our travels out to Otavalo yesterday.

Guinea pigs on rotisserie spits alongside the road outside Quito

We always try to sample local cuisine, and one of our missions in Ecuador and Peru was to try Guinea pig – all but Bas because he just cannot get himself to eat anything he deems to be cute and lap or hand-sized. Bas’ criteria for cuteness encompasses rabbit, ducks (but not chickens), and, of course, Guinea pigs. And, honestly, Linda and Krystyana weren’t too wild about the idea either. Okay, so it was really just me that wanted to try and eat this traditional meat.

The Cover of Mama Clorinda's Menu

Our guide for Otavalo, Luisa, recommended a place in Quito called Mama Clorinda’s as the place to have traditional Ecuadoran food, so after our museum visit this morning we made our way there – about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Mama Clorinda’s was a tiny restaurant with low ceilings (ouch) and about a dozen tables, with lots of locals dining there. As we reviewed the menu we were serenaded by two musicians playing Ecuadoran music. We liked the music, but didn’t appreciate the fact that the musicians were next to our table – it made it too loud for us to talk. Had they been outside the restaurant it would have been more pleasant.

Cuy - Guinea Pig - on the menu of Mama Clorinda's

In any event, we finally ordered our meals, with Bas positioning himself in such a way that he would not be able to see my meal when it arrived. He ordered fried chicken with baked beans, and Linda and Krystyana ordered deep fried pork chunks known as “fritados”. I ordered a whole Guinea pig, but unlike the menu description shown above, I asked for mine to be fried without breading. After all, other than the non-low-carbness of breaded Guinea pig, it’s highly unlikely that Guinea pig was breaded back in the days before cattle – and I wanted as authentic an experience as possible.

When my Guinea pig finally arrived, it was not whole as I had expected. Instead the kitchen had split it into six parts: the head in two parts with the lower jaw separated from the upper jaw and skull, and the body cut into four pieces as seen in the photos below.

The guinea pig is served in many pieces - the head in parts, the torso in four

Here are the guinea pig's teeth in the separated lower jaw

Barely discernable, this is the top of the guinea pig's head - ears at right

The teeth on the jaws were still clearly visible, and if I studied the skull enough I could see where the eyes were (or used to be) and also see the ears sticking up. Each of the four body parts featured a small, crispy paw.

The guinea pig's front paw - extra crispy

My commentary about the meal on my plate were not being well received by Bas, so I stopped my dialog and instead focused on trying the meat. I tried to use a knife and fork, but the Guinea pig parts were just too small for normal utensils so I had to resort to using my fingers. Peeling back the crunchy skin I found the color of the cooked meat was very similar to the dark meat of a chicken or a rabbit, and not surprisingly, very similar in taste. I found the meat to be quite salty, but that may have been the preparation more that the taste of the meat itself as all of the meats we were served were saltier than they should have been.

The flesh of the guinea pig is much like the dark meat of chicken

The fried Guinea pig skin was tasty and fatty, but not as crunchy as it first seemed – instead it was a bit chewy. The other thing I discovered was that Guinea pigs are quite bony, and not particularly meaty. The rump of the Guinea pig had noticeably more meat than the front half, and while I joked with Krystyana that the one benefit of Guinea pig over chicken was that the former had four drumsticks, there really wasn’t that much meat there. I suspect I burnt nearly as much energy picking bits of meat off the carcass as I consumed in the skin and meat that I managed to find to eat.

All in all it was an interesting experience, but probably not one I care to repeat as I prefer bigger pieces of meat which require less work to separate from the bone. And for those who were wondering, Krystyana and Linda did each try a small piece of Guinea pig, but only while Bas averted his gaze. Linda thought it tasted like dark meat from a chicken, while Krystyana was convinced it was more like rabbit.

While I did manage to strip the body of meat and edible skin, I was not able to get myself to search for any morsels of meat that might have been in the lower jaw or skull of the Guinea pig. I hope I did not miss out on anything fantastic, but instinct tells me my decision was a prudent one.

Even I wasn't brave enough to tackle the head of the guinea pig

In terms of Mama Clorinda’s itself, we found the service a bit spotty, and the other meats overcooked. We would seek other places for Ecuadoran cuisine if we had the desire to eat typical local food.


Visiting Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

October 24th, 2008 at 2:11 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I have been promising some more travelogues from prior trips. Below is one from my and Krystyana’s trip to Costa Rica last month.

For our second weekend in Costa Rica, on September 13th, Krystyana and I decided to take a two-night, three-day trip to the Tortuguero area of the country. Our tour provider was, once again, Costa Rica Expeditions.

Tortuguero is the location of a national park, and is situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the north easterly part of the country. The park is a protected area for all sorts of animals, fish, plants, and especially for sea turtles. Thousands of turtles use the beaches of the Tortuguero area for nesting every year. And inland are magnificent jungles.

Bright and early, at 6:30pm, a Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van was waiting to pick us up at our hotel. The folks who picked this up were kind enough to offer actually take all of our baggage and store it in a secure facility for the three days that we were going to be away but I had prepaid the hotel, so we just left every thing in our rooms.

Travel to Tortuguero via the tour typically involved ground and boat transport in one direction, and a charter plane flight in the other.

Our plane to Tortuguero - a Gippsland Aeronautics GA8 Airvan - smooth ride, but tight quarters for a big guy like Jake

One of the interesting things that we discovered when we originally booked this trip was that there was a 25 pound per person limit on baggage for the flight segment, and that the flight typically occurred on the return from Tortuguero, but Douglas, our great agent at Costa Rica Expeditions was able to rearrange the flight schedule for us in a way that guaranteed we could have more luggage with us by flying on the outbound on an empty plane. That was very helpful as my camera bag alone was about 25 pounds, and of course we had our clothing and shoes as well.

Tortuguero's canals and rivers and jungles start getting closer as we prepare to land

We were brought to a small private airport on the north side of the San Jose near the high-rent district where the president of Costa Rica lives. From there we boarded the small eight-seat plane for Tortuguero. The flight was about 35 minutes and took us to the small hamlet of Barro del Colorado on the northeast coast of Costa Rica, above the Tortuguero National Park.

The sign welcoming us to the airfield at Barra del Colorado - no problems with livestock on the runway, this time

Upon arriving in Barro del Colorado we were met by one of the people from Tortuga Lodge – our home for the next three days. His name was Riccardo, and as it would turn out, we would be spending a lot of our time with him. In a ride which took almost an hour, Riccardo took us by riverboat to Tortuga Lodge, which is just outside of Tortuguero Town. Tortuga Lodge is owned by Costa Rica Expeditions, incidentally.

As aside, it is interesting to note that there actually are no real roads and therefore no cars or other large four-wheeled vehicles in the Tortuguero Town area. Instead, all traffic – including all shipping of goods and transportation of people – is handled by very long and narrow river barges on the Tortuguero River and the surrounding canals and inlets.

We had a full reception committee waiting for us at Tortuga Lodge - made us feel very special

As we arrived at Tortuga Lodge we found a number of the members of the staff waiting for us on their pier, including the manager of the property, Duane. We felt quite honored by the turnout. They gave us welcome drinks, took our bags from us, and guided us to breakfast, as it was only about 9am. Breakfast was wonderful. We sat next to the swimming pool, overlooking the water of the nearby river, and had great granola and fresh fruit.

By the way, I should mention that pineapples are the number one export of Costa Rica, and everywhere we ate, fresh pineapple was readily available, and it was incredibly delicious – a nice golden color, juicy, and sweet.

We were also offered our choice of eggs and breakfast meats and as much extra food as we wanted. It turned out that all the meals at Tortuga Lodge were a fixed set of courses, different for every meal and from day to day. And all were excellently prepared. The service was very good too. The only things not included in our package were beverages other than water and juice, and those were inexpensive.

After breakfast we were taken to our room, which was at the very end of the property, on the north side near some tall trees. In those trees were some howler monkeys. We were warned not to go close to them because they were rather spiteful and were known to throw feces at people that came too close to their trees.

Fisheye view of our spacious two-bed room at Tortuga Lodge - no air conditioning, but fans and screen windows took care of that

Our room had two large beds in it, a nice bathroom, but the only air conditioning we had was in the form of heavy-duty screens on the all windows so there be a constant airflow through the room. There were also a couple of ceiling fans – one above each bed. We were concerned about the lack of cooling equipment, as it was quite hot and muggy (the humidity in Tortuguero is quite high during much of the year, we’ve been told), but it turned out to be a non-issue, because we actually managed to sleep quite well due both to exhaustion as well as cooler temperatures at night.

After unpacking and settling in, we headed out and explored the lands and vegetation of the Tortuga Lodge with a couple of our cameras. We came across iguanas, spiders – there were lot of spiders… big spiders… colorful spiders… lots of spiders – and all beautiful in a macabre sort of way. They are kind of frightening but very cool looking all at the same time.

Another shot of the big grasshopper

We also encountered our first basilisk lizards, which are a rather prehistoric looking type of lizard which runs on its rear legs. I think Ray Harryhausen used them in the movie The Lost World back in the 1920s. When they are young and smaller (and thus weigh less), basilisk lizards can actually run across water.

Another basilisk lizard at Tortuga Lodge

We also found some very large grasshoppers, a couple of strawberry poison-dart frogs and we were also shown a “ting” frog. It is a little brown frog, and its name “ting” is derived from the noise it makes at night, which is kind of sounds like someone clinking nice wine glasses together.

Our first local creature was a Ting Frog, so called because of the sound they make at night

We also took the exploration as an opportunity to go to the reception area and sign up for an afternoon guided walk through the protected Tortuguero National Park.

And strawberry poison dart frogs were not uncommon as long as you didn't mind going into the shrubs to find them

Lunch featured marinated grilled veal pierced with skewers of sugarcane and finished with a chocolate torte drizzled with a natural fruit syrup.

Veal skewered with sugar cane - it was delicious - great food at Tortuga Lodge

In preparation for our walk in the jungle of the Tortuguero National Park, we were advised to wear rubber boots because of the mud we would like find in the rainforest. There was quite an assortment of boots behind the reception building, and I even found a pair that almost fit my rather large feet.

We were then taken by Riccardo, our boat driver from earlier that day, to the national park and spent about an hour and hour and a half with him, wandering along a lush jungle trail through the park to look at the variety of plant and animal life that existed there.

A bird related to the cormorant, drying its wings in Tortuguero

Among the things that we saw along the trail were several species of monkeys – spider monkeys, what they call white faced monkeys or capuchins, and also howler monkeys.

A clearer shot of a different species of toucan in Tortuguero

We also saw a variety of birds, but the most special find was a toucan, as we were not aware that toucans existed in this part of Costa Rica. We thought they were only on the Pacific side of the country. We also found numerous leaf cutter ants and yet more spiders and even some beetles too.

A small eye-lash viper our guide Riccardo found for us - quite poisonous, but very pretty

But by far the coolest find was the eyelash viper, a rather poisonous but very small snake. The eyelash viper we found was bright yellow and all curled up and tucked in under a fallen piece of old timber. It was the size of a small tea plate, but we were told stretched out it would be about two feet long. If the snake had not been bright yellow we would never noticed that it was there, and even then we only found it because Riccardo spent quite some time trying to find a snake for us.

Back at the Tortuga Lodge we had ourselves a wonderful dinner and set forth with another guide, Fernando, to see turtles nesting on the protected beach in Tortuguero National Park. We encountered a light drizzle, and ending up wearing ponchos that the staff at Tortuga Lodge had thoughtfully provided us with.

There are actually two viewing times each night that have been set up by the park rangers – 8pm and 10pm – and each resort is put in a lottery every night to see during which of two those slots their guests can go to observe the turtle nesting. In our case we were lucky enough to get the 8pm slot.

I should note that one disappointment that we faced before going on the turtle nesting trip was learning that we could not take cameras with us – even those that basically only shot in infrared, such as Krystyana’s Sony Cybershot, as there were concerns that any sort of unnatural lights could upset the nesting turtles and prevent them from making a nesting attempt.

Fernando took us by boat to Tortuguero Town, and from there we walked about a mile to our appointed meeting spot a few hundred meters inland from the beach. We did not wait on the beach itself because the rangers did not want us frightening the turtles away while they were trying to nest just by our mere presence.

We waited at the meeting spot for about half hour with a growing group of other people from other hotels and tours. Ultimately we had about 40 people in our section. We finally got a call from rangers indicating that they found nesting turtles at a particular place on the beach. Fernando led us there and in the light of the full moon we could actually see a couple of turtles coming up on the shore from the ocean, the moonlight reflecting off their damp shells.

We had to be careful to stay a fair distance away in order to avoid spooking the turtles, but as we found out during the course of the two hours that we were on the beach, a couple of turtles did indeed abort their nesting attempts because they came out of the water in spots near our group and were too unnerved to crawl much further onto the beach. They turned back into the ocean to try to make their nesting attempt later.

The way the rangers and our guides managed to avoid spooking the turtles too much while observing them was by using flashlights that had red filters on the lenses because turtles, as with many marine organisms, don’t actually see light in the red color spectrum. I use the same type of red light when night diving in order to not frighten fish and other creatures and thus be able to observe them in a more natural state.

The turtle nesting beach on which groups are guided and shepherded at night in the Tortuguero National Park are about five kilometers long. During the peak season, which occurs during July and August, there were as many as 700 people a night participating in watching the turtles nest.

The turtle species spotted nesting are primarily green turtles, although occasionally leatherback and loggerhead turtles are seen too.

Throughout our two hours together, Fernando explained a variety of aspects of turtle behavior, including how turtles mate and nest, how the temperature of an egg in the nest will determine the sex of the newborn turtle, the low survival rates of baby turtles, and much more. He also told us that on some busy nights during the peak of the nesting season there have been as many as 2000 nesting attempts recorded during a single night on the 30 kilometers of beach in and surrounding Tortuguero. That is just phenomenal. Back on Bonaire it’s noteworthy if we get even a few recorded nesting attempts a night, but 2000 in one night? Wow. Then again Bonaire does not have the same sorts of beach length or composition that Tortuguero has.

Another interesting thing Fernando explained is that each turtle makes numerous attempts over the course of couple of months period to nest and to lay eggs – typically laying a handful of nests over a two month period. The female turtles crawl all the way into the bushes at the top of the beach to dig their nest, as that is likely to be the most protected area for the two months it takes for the eggs to mature and hatch. However, with some many turtles nesting multiple times, a turtle may in fact dig into another turtle’s preexisting nest and destroy some of the turtle eggs that are in there. And, in fact, we witnessed just that situation occur the night that we were on the beach. The turtle we watched laying eggs had actually exposed another turtle’s nest and ejected a number of those older eggs onto the beach with her forceful digging attempts, using her flippers.

We actually found egg fragments, and even a couple of whole eggs, sitting on top of the sand near the new nest. We had an opportunity to actually hold one of the ejected eggs and found it to be quite heavy. It probably weighed about two thirds of a pound, which surprised us – it looked like a ping pong ball, and we therefore expected it to weigh less. We gently placed the egg back on the beach but Fernando told us that there was no chance that the egg would survive without being in a nest, protected from the sun and predators, and that just by having been flung out of the nest would have killed the baby turtle forming inside. That was rather sad and unfortunate, but that is also a normal product of nature.

Krystyana and I spent many minutes actually watching a large green turtle lay her eggs and then cover her nest. It should be noted that once turtles actually start laying eggs, they go into a trance of sort and kind of ignore the outside world, which is why it was safe for us to observe the egg laying and not disrupt the process merely by being nearby. All in all it was a pretty fascinating experience.

Ultimately we saw about 10 turtles come ashore and most of those continue to actually make making their nesting attempts in or near the bushes. Turtle nesting is a time consuming process because it takes the turtles in order about 15-20 minutes to make it 150-200 feet from the water’s edge into the bushes at the top of the beach and then probably another half hour to dig the nest where she is going to lay her eggs.

It’s a lot of work and we felt kind of sorry for these turtles, watching them struggle along on land, a place where they really were never designed to exist for very long. Their bodies are designed to be sleek and elegant in the water, but natural history dictates that nesting must occur above the water line, as that’s where the eggs have to hatch, in the sand. The cycle starts afresh with the next generation when the baby turtles have to crawl out of their nest, across a huge stretch of sand (relative to their tiny size) and finally end up in the ocean to continue a mostly aquatic life, until it’s time for mature female turtles to nest, on the same beach on which they were born.

One other lesson we learned that night was “bring bug spray”. There were a fair number of mosquitoes and biting insects on the beach, and without bug repellant we would have been very itchy and covered in bites. In fact, bug repellant is kind of a must when venturing anywhere near large growth in the Tortuguero area, since mosquitoes are very common. We did find, however, that while traveling on the bigger rivers, as well as while near the buildings and at meals at Tortuga Lodge, we did not have any mosquito problems.

We slept well that night and the following morning, after another very nice breakfast, we headed out again with Riccardo. This time it was to go and do a canal tour by boat in the Tortuguero National Park. This involved us being on a boat that could hold probably about 10 people. However, because we were there during low season, the tour consisted of just two of us, Krystyana and myself, along with Riccardo as our guide. That was perfect as it allowed us to stop for prolonged periods in places with good photo opportunities.

A crocodile lurks, waiting for prey, in the waters near Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguero

We spent probably around three hours in the canals looking at and looking for all sorts of interesting creatures. We saw several species of herons, a number of other bird species, some bats, a couple of green basilisk lizards, and several caiman (which are a species of crocodile. We also saw a crocodile too. We also observed all three local species of monkeys in the jungles along the canals – spider monkeys, white faced capuchins and howler monkeys. And, of course, there was the lush green jungle itself, which was simply beautiful.

A very cute capuchin monkey ignored us while foraging in the trees above the canal-6

Another set of unusual creatures that we saw on our canal tour were other tourists who were taking similar canal tours with various other tour companies. Amusingly one of the people on the other boats was Laura, a fellow student from the ELISA Language School back in San Jose who had told us that she was going to be out in Tortuguero the same weekend we were.

We headed back to Tortuga Lodge and had another wonderful lunch, took a little bit of rest and then headed off in the afternoon with Riccardo again, this time to go kayaking in the canals. Krystyana and I each had our own kayak, and Riccardo had his and guided us through the canals – a different set of canals from those we had explored earlier that day by boat.

A heron species we don't know found along the canals of Tortuguero-2

We saw even more different kinds of birds during our kayaking, and being by ourselves with no other people around, I decided to try and “speak” howler monkey, ultimately establishing a sort of bellowing rapport with a couple of male howler monkeys. They sound a bit like sea lions. My conversation caused Krystyana much consternation because she was afraid that they might actually come down and try to attack us. I was more concerned about having things whipped at us, so I tried to ensure we were outside feces hurling range.

Another cool thing we saw were juvenile basilisk lizards actually running across the water on their rear legs – another thing we had not expected to see during our time in Tortuguero.

A spider monkey eats while suspended upside down in Tortuguero

One of the nice things about kayaking is that is very serene and peaceful (other than the howler monkey conversation, of course), in part becaue we did not have to deal with the sound of a boat’s motor. We were out for over two hours and then returned back to Tortuga Lodge to enjoy their wonderful warm swimming pool. We stayed in the pool until after sunset and then had another great dinner.

After dinner we opted for a tour of our own – exploring the Tortuga Lodge grounds at night, in the dark, using our flashlights for navigation, with the intent of taking pictures of whatever interesting things we could find with our cameras and strobes.

As we shined our flashlights around on the grass and trees we noticed these little tiny spots of white light reflecting back at us. When we went closer to these reflecting spots, we found they were the eyes of spiders. Fortunately there were not huge spiders, but we just had never realized that spider eyes reflect light, might in the same way that the eyes of shrimp and other crustaceans reflect light underwater at night.

This whole glowing spider eye thing freaked Krystyana out a bit, so we ended up staying out of the more densely vegetated areas in the back of Tortuga Lodge that night. After the initial discovery, I didn’t disclose to her all the additional glittering eyes I ended up seeing as I was looking through the bushes and through the grass for good camera subjects. I will say that there were a lot of spiders in sizes ranging from just an inch centimeters across (leg end to leg end) to as big as five or six inches. None of these was particularly threatening, and some were downright beautiful, but it was a bit creepy nonetheless – I was very glad to have long pants, hiking shoes, and a long sleeved shirt on, just in case.

Another big spider waiting to pounce at night

Among our non-arachnid finds were a sleeping basilisk lizard, some poison dart frogs, many big frogs and toads, as well as a number of interesting bugs and plants. We did not find any ting frogs, although we could definitely hear them all around.

Upon retiring to our room, exhaustion from the day’s activities brought deep slumber that night – fortunately with no spider dreams. The following morning after breakfast we joined another nine departing guests for an hour-long river boat ride to our bus pickup point at Cano Blanco. That was the closest point where the road actually kind of got to Tortuguero.

Along the way to Cano Blanco we actually almost got stuck in the canal because at one point the water level was so low relative to the muddy bottom in the canal that we had only about one or two inches of clearance. Fernando (our boat captain that morning) got us through, but only with a lot of churning through the mud. We observed some other boats coming the other way that actually did get stuck, and the crew had to get out and push the 50 foot long boat through the shallowest part.

As we neared Cano Blanco we also ended up seeing a flock of black headed vultures, as well as roseate spoonbills, another bird species which we found to be a real treat. On Bonaire we have large flocks of Caribbean flamingos, which are just as pink as the roseate spoonbills, but seeing wild spoonbills was cool.

The real bonus was seeing roseate spoonbills in the water

During our three and a half hour bus ride back to San Jose we saw some interesting sights, including banana fields, the relative poverty of some of the smaller villages along the dirt road we were on for the first hour, and truck pulling a horse behind it (instead of the other way around).

A man rides his motorcycle home, laden with groceries such as bananas, in Costa Rica
We arrived at our hotel late on Monday afternoon, tired but happy. Our trip to Tortuguero was more than we had hoped for, both in terms of experiencing the jungles of Caribbean Costa Rica, and with respect to the service we received all along the way. Extra kudos go to all the folks at Costa Rica Expeditions and Tortuga Lodge. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small property in the middle of the jungle which provided such excellent service, facilities, activities, and not at all least, great dining. And the wildlife we had a chance to observe close up and even interact with (in case of the howler monkeys) was incredible.

Definitely put a multi-day visit to Tortuguero on your expedition list if you visit Costa Rica, and don’t let the fact that September is rainy season scare you away from visiting. Just minimize your time in the bigger cities and spend your time out near the wilds.


The Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine

October 22nd, 2008 at 11:40 am (AST) by Jake Richter

While we’ve not had any new adventures since we arrived in Freeport, Maine a couple of days ago – other than lots of shopping for clothing and other goods we want but probably don’t need, I wanted to mention a gem we did discover, courtesy of our travel agents at American Express.

That gem is the Harraseeket Inn on the northern end of Main Street, just two blocks from the massive L.L. Bean store. The Harraseeket Inn happens to also be the only lodging right on Main Street near all the shopping, but this exclusive situation has done nothing to diminish the quality of the service and offerings at the Inn.

The Harraseeket Inn has approximately 90 rooms, each featuring quarter canopied beds in spacious rooms with well appointed bathrooms. And, very important to us, they were able to confirm connecting rooms for us, with a king bed (and a two person jacuzzi tub) in one room and two double beds in the other. The rooms are out fitted with a variety of “green” things, including special lightbulbs in the fixtures, green bathroom products such as soap with a hole in the middle to cut down on waste (weird but true), and indeed, if you leave your towels hanging, housekeeping will not replace them.

Even though the three story inn is huge in terms of rooms, there’s a sort of quaintness one associates with smaller New England bed and breakfast properties. Part of that is due to the trim and fixtures, such as the well distributed (and lit) fireplaces (there are 23 of them throughout the property). There’s also a heated swimming pool and an exercise room.

And the best buffet breakfast of our entire trip so far was included with our stay. A nice, and unexpected, benefit.

But one of the real treats we discovered last night was the Maine Dining Room, one of the Inn’s two restaurants. The Maine Dining Room offers fine dining featuring locally produced and grown goods, from meats and cheese to produce and berries. Everything is freshly prepared in the kitchen, including the pasta for the lobster ravioli served to us. They also have a nice selection of wines by the glass and bottle. Linda and I enjoyed a wonderful 2004 Marilyn Remark Marsanne from Monterey County in California.

Our meals included parsnip and celery soup, a Caesar salad made table side, red snapper, duck confit wrapped in cucumber, and scallops. And deserts sampled by the table included a relatively low-carb lemon marscapone tort and home made blueberry pie a la mode. And the service was quite good as well.

As an extra bonus, it turned out that the server who prepared our Caesar salad for us knew of Bonaire, and more interestingly, her sister and brother-in-law owned a house on our island. And, we discovered that we actually knew her brother-in-law, as he was a fellow artist (photography) on Bonaire. Small world!

We also had lunch in the Broad Arrow Tavern, a rustic looking place with creaky floors and quite tasty food. Although we must say that the lobster stew there was not nearly as good as that at Chester Pike’s Galley up in Sullivan. But the tavern’s great atmosphere, good service, and menu variety is a treat.

One other plus of staying at the Inn is being able to walk to pretty much all the hundred plus stores, many of them designer outlet stores, found in the shopping mecca that Freeport has become. That also means you have a safe and convenient place to drop off your shopping if your loads get too heavy (as happened a couple of times during our stay).

In summary The Traveling Richters highly recommend a stay at the Harrseeket Inn during your next Freeport shopping pilgrimage, or at the very least a dinner in the Inn’s Maine Dining Room, should you be in the area.

At present we’re driving to New Hampshire (and on-line thanks to a Sprint Data Dongle). We’ve just crossed the 2000 mile mark for driving on our Northeast tour. Works out to 1000 miles/week that we’ve had the vehicle. That’s about what we put on our truck on Bonaire in three months of heavy driving. Wow.