Galeria Namu – Take home museum quality Costa Rican art at fair trade prices and support the artists and artisans from Costa Rica’s original 8 tribes
In my search for authentic art and handicrafts from Costa Rica I was quite impressed with my visit to Galeria Namu and my introduction to the owner of the store an ex-pat Irish woman named Aisling.
You must stop in Galeria Namu when you are in San Jose before you depart Costa Rica! Even if you don't buy anything, you will enjoy checking out the ornate Borucu masks and Wounnan carved tagua (from a single, large seed). It's a Fodor's Choice 5-Star location.
Though I hesitate to spoil the thrill of visiting the shop in person, you can browse some works online at http://galerianamu.com/
The gallery is a treasure trove of fair trade art and handicrafts collected by Aisling and her son from artists and artisans who belong to each of Costa Rica's original, indigenous peoples. Costa Rica recognizes 8 tribes who were present when the Spanish arrived and who are still represented in the country today: Chorotega, Maleku, Bribri, Cabécar, Ngobe-Buglé (Guyami), Borucu, Térraba, and Huetar. The shop also carries Wounnan baskets from Panama and Lenca pottery from Honduras.
The afternoon we stopped in Aisling was meeting with two members of the Borucu tribe who had brought a selection of ceremonial masks carved from balsa wood that had been used in this years Fiesta de los Diablos. Aisling had a documentary of the ceremony playing in the store to provide tourists information about the significance of the ceremony.
We purchased a decorative serving bowl hand-carved from surá wood found from the forest naturally fallen or reclaimed from disused fence posts or buildings. The piece is by folk artist Cristóbal Marroquin.
Galeria Namu is on 7th Avenue between 5th Street and 7th Street. There is a great stylish and modern place to grab a bite to eat and a beer nearby with a rooftop patio – Kalu it is on the corner of 7th street and 11th avenue.
Though Grano de Oro literally means Grain of Gold in English in Costa Rica this phrase honors the coffee bean which is vital to the Costa Rican economy.
The Hotel Grano de Oro is a labor of love by a Canadian family that turned a private mansion into a world class hotel. The mansion was built in 1910, but it did not get converted and open as a hotel on 1994. The hotel honors it's residential history with many period photographs throughout the public spaces.
Erin and I stayed in the Garden Suite which was the entertaining parlor originally. It is furnished in period antiques so you truly feel your spending the night in your “friend with old money”s parents' house. The suite has its own private patio garden and interestingly a foyer. Another perk is that it has double-wide spa jet tub so two people may comfortably bathe side by side.
The eponymous hotel restaurant is excellent. Erin and I dined under the stars in the courtyard and ordered a three course meal. Extensive and affordable wine list. Great selection of sipping rums. I tried Spanish Zacapa rum for the first time. It was a $20 sip but heavenly flavor.
The rooftop jacuzzis were disappointing and did not compare to those of The Convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They were basically the precast tubs you might find in your neighbors backyard. Don't get excited to hang out there.
We had Jen (owner of Hidden Canopy Treehouses) reserve a private driver to take us to Tabacón mainly because we felt we had too much luggage to manage the public Jeep-Boat-Jeep transfer. That ran $180 US.
Jen had told me over the phone when I was booking travel arrangements that her place was a world away from Tabacón and she was right. Jen's place is about intimacy and mountain top solitude for couples. Tabacón has 102 rooms, the standard rooms are very basic, and you have a mix of families and couples.
At Tabacón you're paying for access to the thermal springs and a view of Arenal Volcano. It was clear enough to see 75% of the time but the cone itself was covered in clouds so we missed that rare sighting.
The thermal springs will blow your mind! You don't have to stay at Tabacón to access the springs. You and locals can access the hot springs downstream from the resort for free. Or you can pay $60 for a day to access the resort thermal springs (and only $10 for children under 12). You could also book a treatment at the spa. If you stay at the resort then access is free and there are morning guests only hours. Plus you can go to the springs in your spa robe which appears to be the preferred dress among guests.
The hotel and thermals are a hill slope apart but there is a shuttle between the two to avoid the five minute walk up or down hill. The Los Tucanes restaurant on property is pleasant dining.
Secret Tip – For some reason nearly everyone congregates at the first set of waterfalls near the property entrance. However there are dozens of pools and falls along a lengthy path that leads to the adults only Shangri-La Gardens. There are plenty of places to have a private experience, though leave your clothes on or you're likely to be discovered by like minded explorers.
“Did you go ziplining?” is the first thing anyone asks upon hearing the words “Costa Rica”. For years, I've free associated Costa Rica directly to ziplining through a cloud forest. The combination of “zip” and “cloud forest” has always inspired images of a lush canopy among other worldly trees shrouded in mist, whizzing past families of playful monkey scampering in the tree tops, and oddly Lando Calrissian. Over the years, this recurring image has gone from fantasy to near mythic proportions, thus as I booked my trip I felt as if I was destined to meet the gods on Mt Olympus.
Myth is a more romantic version of reality. Yes, ziplining was fun, but my expectations were too high and misinformed. I thought people went ziplining to experience the biosphere of the canopy. Thus I always assumed a naturalist was guiding among the heights and lecturing at each platform to provide context and background on the unique biodiversity in the way my naturalist guide had walked me on the forest floor earlier that morning.
The experience is more focused on the activity of ziplining itself with the cloud forest as back drop. This is why many people choose SkyTrek over The Original Canopy – they want to go big and they want to go fast. It seems more “adventure” experience than “ecotourism”
The giant, hollow ficas trees are other worldly and The Original Canopy Tour lets you climb right up the center of a 60 meter tall tree (my estimate).
With those reflections as disclaimer, why don't you go on a ride yourself with this point of view video from my visit!
Here I am swinging in the Tarzan swing
I am not a birder. My birding experience is limited to watching The Big Year starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. However my travel guide piqued my interest in the resplendent quetzal by saying seeing one is one of the top experiences to be had in Costa Rica.
Our host Jen at Hidden Canopy Treehouses arranged a guide for us to experience the cloud forest. She often works with Koky who was the guide who shared the first through his eyes. His eyes are well trained as he's lived in Monteverde his entire life and has been guiding people and continually learning more about ecology for 25 years.
Koky and Me spotting birds
The biggest advantage in hiring Koky was that he knew how to spot the birds. We would have seen 5% of what he showed us if we had been hiking by ourselves. He's able to spot the birds with his naked eye and then set up a telescope for you to get an up close look. He'll surprise you with the quality of a photo taken with your iPhone when its held next to the lens of a powerful telescope
Of course the context and background Koky provided on all the flora and fauna was useful. I could appreciate I was looking a hard to find bird or know the electronic sounding horn was the first appearance of the bell bird this season.
Tips to spotting the resplendent quetzal:
- Hire Koky through Jen at Hidden Canopy Treehouses
- Skip Monteverde and go to the Curi-Cancha preserve instead
- Take the first left off the trail to find the giant and exposed avocado tree where the quetzal roost (they love avocados!)
- Go “in season” the birds are only on the Pacific side of the continental divide part of the year. We spotted our birds in March
Here's an iPhone photo of one of the four male resplendent quetzals we saw.
Monteverde greeted us with an epic rainbow. The rainbow sprung from the valley floor and soared far above our jeep which was roving the unpaved mountain road. I took this as a sign we were on the threshold of a magical realm.
Our lodging destination was Hidden Canopy Treehouses boutique hotel. The property is perched near the top of a mountain just below the continental divide. Thus there is an expansive view of the entire verdant valley.
The architecture of the hotel is designed around this vantage as public and private rooms feature floor to ceiling windows that bring the landscape indoors. The landscaping and reforestation on the property bring the cloud forest right up to your door. Thus the already spectacular view is enhanced by thoughtful design.
The interior enhances the experience too as both the private and public spaces exhibit the same conscious aesthetic. The private spaces (i.e. rooms and treehouses) are each individually designed with intent and inspired by people in the life of the owner Jen. The trails between the main house and tree houses lend themselves to strolling and reflection. The most frequented public space is the “common room” where Jen and her staff host a 5pm “tea time” every evening to bring guests together for conversation and a view of the sunset.
“Tea time” is a misnomer as the principle drinks are house made white or red sangria, wine, and beer. Each night promises a different savory boca (small bite) and sweet dessert. You'll appreciate this generosity even as it spoils your dinner.
The “tea time” is the perfect opportunity for your Monteverde experience to be enhanced by the personality of Jen, her first mate Natalie, the other staff, and your fellow guests. Service is sublime. The team makes a point to never let a glass go empty.
The evening bocas, evening sweets, and the complimentary morning breakfast are made in a residential kitchen. Therefore there is not a restaurant on premises. However Jen recommends ordering your evening meal in from one of three restaurants nearby. Orders can be charged to your room and enjoyed in the common area or your private room.
Erin and I stayed two nights in two different rooms. The first night we were in a treehouse suite named Eden and the second night we moved into a smaller room named Clouds that was in the main house.
The “treehouse” was much more grandiose and luxurious than I imagined. The walls, floors, and ceilings are all made of hardwood. This gave me sensation I was staying in a fancy yacht. Eden is two-stories and descending the wood encased stairway doubled the sensation of being in a state room on a yacht. Upstairs you have a living area, bathroom, and balcony. Downstairs you have a canopied king size bed, a bathroom, tremendous shower, second balcony and the piece de resistance – a four person jacuzzi encased in glass and surrounded by cloud forest. One of the floor to ceiling panes of glass can open to expose the cozy hot tub to the cool, misty ambient air.
Eden is truly a space for newlyweds to pamper themselves. The comfortable king bed is surrounded by large mirrors so that naive Adams and Eves can fully get to know each other in the biblical sense.
Although our second room was much more modest (except in respect to also having surround sound mirrors) with “only” a stone waterfall shower and no jacuzzi or living room – it does offer one of the most incredible views on the property.
Jen goes out of her way to help you enjoy your time in Monteverde and in fact all of Costa Rica as she makes herself available as your in country concierge. She's an experienced traveller herself and has visited 56 different countries.