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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Horsing Around in Turrialba, Costa Rica

     Our weekend in the Turrialba area was a rush! One new experience followed on the heels of another, with hardly time to catch our breath. Although reports of road closures around the country due to rain made us question the wisdom of travel, Desiree assured us that in her region, things were normal: sunny in the morning with late afternoon downpours. No problema! So on Thursday morning off we went on a three-plus-hour bus ride, across the Central Valley and down the long Caribbean slope to Turrialba where Desiree met us with one of her four dogs, Bella, who had a vet appointment in town. We made our way to the central park as dozens of loud-voiced parrots in tall palm trees screeched a welcome and we sat down at a sidewalk café for a bite of lunch. Afterwards, we walked a few blocks to the vet and had good news on Bella - just a fatty deposit - so we headed to the car for the thirty-minute ride to Desiree’s home high on the mountain beyond the tiny village of Tuis.
         The first part of our trip from Turrialba to La Suiza was on paved roads, but words can hardly describe the last few miles of steep uphill pulls on narrow gravel tracks with potholes as big as barrels, Desiree hardly slowing her 30-year-old Toyota jeep as we growled our way to near the top of the 3500’ peak. Once we arrived, we could see why she loves it: a near 360-degree view across two valleys to the smoking peak of Turrialba Volcano and a grand vista of mountains all around.
         Desiree and her partner Tim (who was in Africa for his United Nations pilot’s job) have a huge spread for their dogs, horses, chickens, cattle and turkeys. With the considerable help of her farm worker Rudo, Desiree is developing a greenhouse and herb garden and growing enough grasses to feed the horses. The house boasts floor-to-ceiling windows in virtually every room; the views are truly incredible.
The view from Maddie's back!
         On Friday morning, we were up early for a horseback ride up the mountain road. Costa Rican ponies are much smaller than most U.S. horses, just over 14 hands, but sure-footed and steady on the rather steep ride to the top. Fearing crippling soreness, we opted not to complete the two-hour loop but we did enjoy amazing views from the upper section of Desiree’s land. Stopping back by her greenhouse, where Rudo was packing huge bags of freshly-cut horse feed, we tied up the horses and hiked down a treacherous steep path, slick from the night’s rain, to the top of the waterfall. A landslide had blocked off the trail to the bottom of the falls but the pools above were obviously a favorite spot for the dogs, who cavorted across the mossy rocks and chased imaginary fish in the small ponds. It was a beautiful spot for a picnic or just a tranquil hour out of the tropical heat.
         After our ride, we cleaned up and headed for the feria in Turrialba, which meant another half hour of bone-jarring bumps over rocky roads. The farmers’ market was alive with vendors calling out the merits of their produce, from the ordinary carrots, potatoes, bananas and such to the more exotic chayote, yucca and huge papayas. After a few purchases we stopped into Desiree’s favorite bakery for empanadas before heading back up the hill to the house. Our evenings were spent getting better acquainted, laughing and talking as we enjoyed Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics or Chilean wines, courtesy of Tim’s good taste in liquor, watching the afternoon sky darken into rain clouds and listening to the eventual boom of thunder and the rattle of heavy showers in the trees.

One of several stream crossings
         But if we thought we had seen the worst of the roads in Costa Rica, we were in for a surprise on Saturday when we drove several miles out of La Suiza to visit Ginnee and Phil, Desiree’s friends who are developing a biodynamic/organic farm and eco project in the middle of remote jungle alongside the rushing Rio Atirro. Located just beyond the tiny pueblo of Esperanza, the couple owns some 1000 acres, most of it protected virgin forest. But on the acreage under cultivation, Phil is growing a special type of bamboo, called Guadua Angustifolia, which gets as big as eight inches in diameter and is used for home construction in Columbia. Ginnee hopes to eventually build bamboo huts in the back of their homesite to rent out as vacation cottages. A former nurseryman with extensive plant knowledge, Phil is also cultivating Vetevier, a pasture grass that grows a three-foot root, which helps prevent erosion and the landslides so common here. As he showed us around the property, he spouted Latin names of plant species here and there like a music lover might name songs.
         After our brief tour through the orchards and down by the river, accompanied by seven of their dogs, Ginnee treated us to her delicious coconut flan, tasty fresh ginger tea and a cold treat of papaya faux ice cream as we all sat around the big dining table, with Layne and I doctoring a few bug bites, and talked the merits of organic farming, a back-to-the-land lifestyle and the “intentional community” they are planning. Ginnee told us of her blog,, where she chronicles the birth of every calf and shares other news of their life in the small community. Check it out - it has some great photos.
         One notable thing about the location of their big farm was the climate. Nestled down in a jungle valley surrounded by steep forested hillsides, we expected it to be hot and humid. Instead, there was a steady and strong breeze blowing through their windows, which were covered by screens but had no glass or shutters to shut out the weather. According to Phil, the thermal breezes move up the mountainsides in the mornings as the air warms, then reverse and blow downhill in the late afternoons, keeping the air fresh and cool virtually all the time.
         On our way back to Tuis and Desiree’s place, we stopped briefly at a macaw breeding facility. The beautiful birds were exciting to view up close, as they peered curiously back at us while we wandered through the three open buildings. But some were obviously stressed with feathers missing and a depressed look about them. Although some of them will eventually go to new owners or even be turned back into the wild, it saddened me to see these gorgeous, untamed creatures locked in cages.  
         After our return, as Layne and I relaxed in the afternoon shade, Desiree brought out two baby turkeys to give them some free-range time out of their heated nursery kennel. To my amazement, her dogs left the chicks alone. Even big Bru, who is part wolf, part German Shepard and part Collie, was politely curious but not the least bit aggressive. What a great menagerie Desiree has and how fortunate we were to share a long weekend with her and her critters. We look forward to a return trip! 
(Remember, you can click on photos to enlarge.)

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