LA FORTUNA, Alajuela — We ate at more eateries here than we could name, and we almost always found some little detail we didn’t like. Still, at times we enjoyed our dinner immensely and left licking our fingers.
Our range of experience was wide, but we agreed that most places offered the same type of food.
“Todo es lo mismo,” Guiselle said: Everything is the same. Everyone serves beef, pork, chicken and seafood, everyone has casados, everyone has arroz con pollo. So what stands out in this town?
Guiselle and I ate out every day for over a month, and then we were joined by my colleague Michael Krumholtz, who can eat more than both of us combined.
Many great restaurants are located in great hotels, which are reviewed separately and are not included in this list. We wouldn’t call these “the best” restaurants in Arenal, because we didn’t eat at all of them, but here are five we really liked, in alphabetical order.
Costa Rica’s Greatest Places
In this series, Tico Times Travel takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring their appeal. In April, we’ll be looking at all the attractions of Arenal — adventure tourism, hotels, restaurants, real estate and of course that volcano and all those hot springs.
PART I: Valle del Sol
PART II: Quepos/Manuel Antonio
PART III: The Flamingo Coast
PART IV: Nosara
PART V: Arenal
1. Café Mediterraneo
Former United States Vice President Al Gore, who earned a reputation as a climate change guru through his documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, is scheduled to speak in Costa Rica on March 16.
He will give a presentation for the "Business Forum on the Environment and Sustainability" (Foro Empresarial sobre Sostenibilidad y Ambiente) at the Marriott Hotel in San José, according to the daily La Nación, one of the event’s sponsors.
Gore founded the Alliance for Climate Protection in 2006 to educate the global community about the urgency of implementing comprehensive solutions to climate crisis. At the time, he had also just come out with ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, a film on climate change, that became an instant success in the box office. For his work in climate change, Gore was recognized with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He also served as vice president under former president Bill Clinton (1993-2001).
The Costa Rican forum was organized to continue national discussion on climate change, according to La Nación.
Other speakers include Erika Harms, executive director of the Tourism Sustainability Council (TSC) and senior advisor on Tourism at the United Nations Foundation, and Elizabeth Losos, president and CEO of the Organization for Tropical Studies.
This was our favorite restaurant in La Fortuna — an elegant Italian place with stylish ambience, excellent service and, best of all, outstanding food.
Proprietor Geovanny Lobo, 37, said his is the only place in town that makes its own pasta — spaghetti, fettucini and ravioli, everything except the penne, which requires a special machine. He recommended the green fettucini, made with avocado and tomato.
So I ordered the Spaghetti Matricciana with tomato sauce and smoked bacon, asking for the green fettucini instead of the spaghetti. It was possibly the best pasta dish I ever had.
More than two years after a 6.2 magnitude earthquake leveled the mountain village of Cinchona, claimed at least 30 lives and forced thousands to evacuate, 93 families who lost everything will have a new place to live.
Construction of New Cinchona, a 600-hectare community in Cariblanco de Alajuela, is more than 50 percent complete and housing officials expect residents to be moving in as soon as February. New Cinchona is located roughly six kilometers from the original town northwest of San José.
As of January 7, Facoli Dent, the firm contracted to build New Cinchona, had completed 82 of the 93 homes and began to paint the structures and install front lawns. Builders broke ground at the site on Oct. 13, 2010, and said that construction would be complete within 75 days from that date, but torrential rainfalls at the end of last year delayed work.
The group has begun to pave roads and has finished the installation of rain gutters and waste water pipelines at the New Cinchona. Officials from Facoli-Dent expect to contract a company to build a waste water treatment plant this week.
While two years seems like a long time for a new home, for Leidy Salazar, who hopes to move into her new home in February, it was worth the wait.
“The time doesn’t matter because hope continues,” she said. “The idea is that the tough memories are behind us. New Cinchona [is] new life,” she said.
Including consultations, land purchases and construction, New Cinchona cost Costa Rica’s National Emergency Commission ₡5.2 billion ($10.2 million). Of the cost, ₡3.6 billion ($7 million) were provided by Costa Rica’s national emergency fund, while ₡1.6 billion ($3.5 million) stemmed from donations from Costa Rican citizens.
Guiselle ordered the Pizza Tejana, which had tomato sauce, mozzarella, cheddar, bacon, jalapeño, purple onion and ground beef. She raved as she devoured it — the peppers burned, but they burned so good.
Guiselle asked Geovanny, who is from Heredia and is Italian in name only, why he chose to open an Italian restaurant.
“Because if I was going to open a restaurant, I wanted to open a restaurant where I could eat every day,” he said. “I eat pizza every day.”
A United Nations report released Monday seems to support Costa Rica's case in a border dispute with neighboring Nicaragua. Opening statements start Tuesday at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.
The report released by UNITAR-UNOSAT, a U.N. environmental assessment body, compares satellite images of the Isla Calero during a time frame from 1979 to 2010. Titled “Morphological and Environmental Change Assessment: San Juan River Area (including Isla Portillos and Calero), Costa Rica,” the report details the recent environmental alteration to the region, while also alluding to potential effects of the river dredging.
“There is apparently an area of active land removal on a (bend) of the San Juan River approximately 400m to the south of the newly created channel,” the report read. “If this (land) removal continues, it could redirect the flow of San Juan approximately 175m to the west, likely increasing river flow velocity downstream; such an increase in water velocity could also have the effect of accelerating erosion along the newly created river channel to the north.”
The report stated that a morphological review of the area was conducted in 1979, 1986, 2005, and from 2007 to 2010. The images show that the area had been relatively stable during the last 30 years, with few indications of change until the late months of 2010.
“Based on an analysis of satellite imagery recorded on Nov. 19 and Dec. 14, 2010, there is strong evidence that a new river channel leading from the San Juan River to the Los Portillos lagoon was constructed between Aug. and Nov. 2010.”
The report of environmental alteration to the river region is expected to aid Costa Rica’s cause before the world court. Costa Rica hopes to prove Nicaragua’s destruction of wetlands within Costa Rican territory.
In response to the UNITAR-UNOSAT report, Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro posted on his Facebook page that “there aren’t rivers, nor have there ever been rivers between the San Juan and the Los Portillos lagoon on the Isla Calero (which again show that the statements made by [Edén] Pastora and [Nicaraguan] president [Daniel] Ortega are not based in reality).”
The UN report: http://www.unitar.org/unosat/node/44/1526
Follow www.ticotimes.net for further coverage of the Costa Rica - Nicaragua case at the World Court
We also asked about the fresh grated cheese on the table, which was excellent. “It’s called Grana Padana; it’s similar to Parmesan. It comes in a big wheel and spends 24 months maturing,” Geovanny said.
A couple of good red wines, a cabernet from Argentina and a merlot from Chile, capped this dinner off perfectly.
We were almost embarrassed to ask if they had “servicio express,” takeout service, for those lazy nights when we wanted to feast at home. But the happy answer was yes!
— Karl Kahler
2. Don Rufino
A new schedule for vehicle restrictions in the capital will begin Thursday. Restrictions will now be in effect only from 6 to 7:30 a.m. and from 4:30 to 7 p.m., according to a press release from the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT).
In the past, vehicle restrictions were applied from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Now, vehicles can be fined only during rush hour.
Drivers with restricted plates will be prohibited from traveling in downtown San José and within the Circunvalación, a belt route around the city.
As of Jan. 1, fines for driving with a restricted license are ₡41,080 ($82). On Mondays, cars with license plates ending with a 1 or 2 cannot enter the restricted zone during rush hour. On Tuesdays, plates ending in 3 or 4 are banned, those ending with 5 or 6 are prohibited Wednesdays, 7 or 8 on Thursdays, and 9 or 0 on Fridays.
The restrictions do not apply to motorcycles, public transportation vehicles, school buses and vehicles of disabled people.
According to the press release, the new executive decree will be published today in the government’s official publication, La Gaceta. The new schedule for restricted plates will be re-evaluated after three months. In April, MOPT will decide whether the new hours meet with a mandate to reduce congestion in the city or if the old hours need to be reinstated.
I would call Don Rufino the finest restaurant in La Fortuna, offering gourmet dining and excellent wines in a beautiful setting. It’s also probably the most expensive restaurant in town, but one of its smartest features is a bar that opens onto the street, so anyone wandering by can belly up and order a drink without facing the sticker shock of the dinner menu.
We enjoyed a four-course meal of ceviche, risotto, ribeye and chocolate mousse, with a flight of white and red wines. The ceviche was white marlin in an avocado cream with ginger, tomato dressing, red onion and coriander, served with yucca crisps.
The squash risotto came with chicken, shrimp, cherry tomatoes and parmesan, and the char-grilled ribeye was served with cauliflower puree, concannon potatoes, cabbage and bacon. It was all excellent, and the chocolate mousse melted in the mouth.
The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) could be giving away late Christmas presents to the estimated 39,000 remaining users of TDMA technology phones. According to a statement from ICE, all users that have TDMA phones have the “possibility” to receive a free phone if they elect to move to GSM or 3G network services this month. TDMA is an outdated, basic network that's being phased out in Costa Rica.
“ICE is contacting the clients that remain on the TDMA network and is offering them the ease of receiving a free new phone if they move to GSM and 3G technologies,” the statement read.
The statement said that ICE is trying to move all clients to 3G or GSM service by the end of the month, with the hope of disconnecting the TDMA network by February. The statement deemed that TDMA service, which was created in 1995, is now “obsolete”, and that only 39,000 of ICE’s estimated 3 million clients still use the technology.
According to the statement, customers that make the switch to 3G or GSM can retain the same phone numbers they had on the TDMA service.
In December, Mexican-owned America Móvil and Spain's Telefónica bid to compete in the national cellular telephone market, which was opened for competition by the passing of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA) on Jan. 1, 2009. Both companies are anticipated to enter the market this year and will compete with ICE, which held a state-run monopoly over the telecommunications market for several decades.
Head chef Santiago Fernández, 30, has been a cook for half his life, since an apprenticeship at Le Chandelier in San José at age 15.
“My focus is on creating recipes that you might call típicas, but turning them into something that you never would have expected,” he said.
When a Latin American president assumes office, it’s common for fellow heads of states to attend their counterpart's inauguration as a sign of respect.
But when the first female president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff was sworn in Saturday, the first female president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, was not present.
When questioned about her absence, head Costa Rican cabinet member Marco Vargas, said in a press conference Tuesday that Chinchilla had not made any plans to travel during the month of December because she had to attend to prior commitments. In addition, Vargas stated that Chinchilla chose to stay home for the New Year because of the [fiscal] situation of the country. Costa Rica faces a growing fiscal deficit.
Chinchilla was represented by Costa Rica Ambassador to Brazil Victor Manuel Monge.
“In general, we don’t complicate the food much. We like it to be simple but rico. You’ll find nice presentations, but our focus isn’t on showing off an extravagant chef. The food is good, and as a plus, you have good service, good presentation, so that’s the focus of this place.”
Carlos Quesada, one of the four brothers and sisters who own the place, said it’s named after their grandfather, Don Rufino, one of the first settlers in the area.
— Karl Kahler
3. La Forchetta
Eduardo Ulibarri, the Costa Rican Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.), denounced the Nicaraguan occupation of the Isla Calero before the General Assembly of the U.N. on Monday. Ulibarri told the members of the council that presence of the Nicaraguan troops is a “clear violation” of Costa Rican sovereignty, territorial integrity and national dignity.
“Due to an incomprehensible, unjustified and unacceptable act by the government of Nicaragua, our region has taken a disastrous step backwards en our efforts to overcome our disappointing past and embrace a better future,” Ulibarri said. “The principal victim of this conduct is Costa Rica, but the effects transcend the entire region and beyond.”
Ulibarri also recounted the various measures Costa Rica has taken to resolve and create awareness of the conflict through diplomatic bodies, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Ibero-American Summit in Argentina, a Binational Commission meeting (which was cancelled), and the Secretary of the International Convention on Wetlands (RAMSAR). The case will next be heard before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands from Jan. 11-13.
“Costa Ricans have the right to live without an army,” he said. “We decided to do so in 1949. No effort or arbitrary action will cause us to stray from that path. However, to maintain it, we depend on the multilateral system and international bodies that reinforce national rights.”
Chef Alessandro Baldini came to Costa Rica from northern Italy decades ago and brought his homemade Italian recipes with him. After running a restaurant in San Pedro near the capital, Baldini opened La Forchetta seven months ago.
“I can’t live in San José anymore,” he said. “You can’t drive a block there without it taking 30 minutes. Here I can walk everywhere and look up at the volcano every day. It’s much more tranquil.”
At the homey La Forchetta, located just two blocks south of La Fortuna’s Central Park, Baldini’s cooking provides the definition of comfort food. During my meal here I began with a good glass of Spanish Tempranillo suggested by my extremely attentive waiter. Though I was looking for a good starter, there was really no option besides caprese, which was my only complaint at this restaurant.
Instead, the waiter brought out complimentary bread with an awesome pesto sauce that was a fine consolation. For an entree, I ordered the ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese. The ravioli was doused with an excellent red sauce that had thick slices of tomato and a shredded white cheese.
This, to me, is as comfortable as comfort food gets. With the food, the environment, and the hospitality of Chef Alessandro, it’s like being transported to the foothills of the Italian Alps.
— Michael Krumholtz
4. La Parrilla de María Bonita
Foreign Trade Minister Anabel González announced Thursday that sales of Costa Rican exports to the U.S. rose 24 percent in 2010. González attributed the increase in exports to the reduction in tariffs offered by the U.S. in respect to the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which came into effect on Jan. 1, 2009.
In 2010, sales of exports to the U.S. exceeded $3.3 billion, up from $2.7 billion in 2009. The U.S. accounted for over 36 percent of total Costa Rican export sales last year.
“An enormous importance this year was the growth in the number of exports to the U.S.,” González said. “What this appears to indicate is that CAFTA is providing the results that we expected. The 24 percent increase is a very significant increase.”
González said that the largest percentage increase of export revenue to the U.S. was seen in the sales of pineapples, bananas, tuna, medical devices and sugar. Sugar exports rose 192 percent in 2010.
Overall, Costa Rican sold more than $13.59 billion in exports in 2010, a 7.5 percent increase from 2009. According to González, Costa Rica had the third largest export sales per capita income in Latin America in 2010, topped only by Uruguay and Mexico.
The largest revenue yielding exports in 2010 were electronic components and microprocessors, despite a 12 percent decrease in sales. Costa Rica remains the world’s top exporter of pineapples and the second largest exporter of bananas.
A total of 4,255 different Costa Rican products were shipped to 148 different destinations in 2010, including Africa and Australia.
At La Parrilla de María Bonita, the consummate meat lover has a place to celebrate. Yes, the restaurant also specializes in veggie Mediterranean options like falafel, tabbouleh and fattoush salad. But it’s the meat that shines bright at this little dining spot tucked a few blocks away from the center of La Fortuna.
The restaurant, which held the top ranking on Trip Advisor for the area as this was written, offers a variety of grilled meats. My girlfriend ordered the sausage platter that came with three varieties of stuffed pork. I went with the St. Louis-style ribs, a risky proposition given our distance from the Gateway Arch.
It may not have been midwestern barbecue, but they were some of the best ribs I’ve had in Costa Rica. And although I would have preferred more traditional barbecue sides of red beans and cole slaw, the refried black beans and plantains were fine.
My only qualm was a pre-dinner palate cleanser of mango sorbet. To be frank, I just didn’t get it. It’s a bit unnecessary and doesn’t make sense in a place that’s serving curly fries as a side.
MANAGUA – After more than year of dropping unsubtle hints, Nicaragua's ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) on Monday essentially announced what the rest of the country already knows: Daniel Ortega is going to run as the party's presidential candidate again this year
for the sixth consecutive election since 1984.
The fact that Ortega's candidacy is doubly prohibited by the Constitution does not appear to be a concern to the ruling party, which released a communiqué Monday afternoon announcing, "We are preparing with optimism and strength to convoke our people to continue deepening the transformations of conscience in an electoral campaign that proposes that the people, with the Frente and with Daniel, continue to be the president."
Consistent with the FSLN's characteristic confusion of state, party and family, the FSLN communiqué was circulated as an official government release, making it appear that Nicaragua's official state position is that Ortega should continue as president.
The communiqué, written and announced by First Lady and government communications tsar Rosario Murillo, announced that the FSLN's annual party congress, when the party will officially announce its 2011 presidential candidate, will be held Feb. 12. However, given the fact that the government has already erected "Daniel 2011" billboards and is handing out "Daniel" campaign hats, it's probably a safe bet that Ortega will continue as the party's frontman.
"With energy, good will, enthusiasm, serenity, confidence and above all humility, the FSLN will guarantee that the great majority of Nicaraguans vote with their conscience to continue governing Nicaragua with the Frente and with Daniel," the party/government release says.
Article 147 of the Constitution doubly prohibits Ortega's announced candidacy since he is the acting president and has already served two terms (1984-1990; 2007-2012).
But for the Orteguista magistrates in the Supreme Court, who can produce a constitutional remix with the ease of a club DJ, any law can be spun into a Sandinista mash-up.
In a secretive and allegedly illegal court session held in October 2009, Ortega's judges ruled that Article 147 does not apply to their boss (NT, Oct. 23, 2009). Then, just last week, the same Orteguista magistrates and a group of crony substitute judges convoked another secretive session to ratify the decision and order that it be printed in the official daily La Gaceta.
Opposition judges, who have managed to be absent for every crucial Orteguista offense against the Constitution over the past two years, once again played their tired role of feigning innocence, stomping their feet and pretending to be shocked and disgusted by the illegal behavior of their counterparts.
Only the Catholic Church has taken a strong position on the matter. Monseñor Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop for Managua, said during his Jan. 23 Sunday Mass that the Orteguistas consistent abuse of the Constitution qualifies as "a sin."
That singular miss was made up for, however, with really good service from the friendly waitstaff. Admittedly, my bar is set pretty low for service in a country where it often seems like you’re an uninvited guest in someone’s home when you eat out at restaurants.
In María Bonita’s romantic atmosphere, our waitress was observant but not overbearing. With an already great assortment of food, it’s that kind of service that makes the meal.
— Michael Krumholtz
5. Rancho Perla
The body of Erik Downes, a junior at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, was recovered Friday in the waters off Playa Piñuelas on the southern Pacific coast, university officials said in a statement.
Downes, 20, was reported missing Tuesday at Playa Dominical. A spokesman for the Costa Rica Red Cross said Downes was swimming with classmates when he was caught in a riptide. Downes, a pre-med major and vice president of the student body, was traveling with Oglethorpe classmates and faculty members for an ecotourism study abroad trip.
“Erik was a shining star with unlimited potential and a kind heart,” Oglethorpe University President Lawrence M. Schall said. “This is a great loss to our community. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
When we first pulled up to this restaurant, a half-dozen tour buses had beaten us here, and Japanese tourists were snapping photos of a low-hanging sloth. Not a bad sign on either count, I thought — all these tour operators wouldn’t be bringing their clients to a place with bad food, would they, and how cool is it to eat your lunch within view of a sloth?
Located 100 meters behind Arenal Backpackers Resort, Perla offers an excellent sampling of Costa Rican cuisine — seafood, beef, pork, chicken, salads and more, all of it artfully presented and thoughtfully served.
The world’s top youth tennis players competed in the semifinals and finals of the Copa del Café this weekend at the Costa Rica Country Club in Escazú, west of San José. The 47th edition of the week-long tournament featured a total of 146 young stars from 51 countries.
Through the first four days of the tournament, most of the top-seeded players from the boys and girls sides had found their way into the quarterfinal round, which was played Thursday.
On the girls’ side, returning champion An-Sophie Mestach of Belgium cruised through the first three rounds, beating U.S. player Gabrielle Desimone on Wednesday in straight sets. Mestach won the singles and doubles titles at the Copa del Café in 2010.
In perhaps the most intriguing match-up of the girls’ singles competition, Mestach played fifth-seeded Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands on Thursday (results not available by press time). Mestach and Schuurs are doubles partners and were the winners of the 2010 Copa del Café doubles competition. The duo was eliminated from the second round of the doubles competition Wednesday.
On the boys’ side, five of the tournament’s top 10 seeds advanced to the quarterfinals, led by top-seeded Hugo Dellien of Bolivia and second-seeded Bjorn Fratangelo of the United States. Both are ranked in the top 50 of the world’s youth tennis circuit.
The lone Costa Rican to win a match was José Pablo Gil, who beat Luke Jacob Gamble of the U.S. in straight sets in the first round on Monday. Gil lost to 13th-seeded Wilfredo Gonzalez of Guatemala on Tuesday.
The Copa del Café has a storied tradition of hosting young talents that go on to be big-time professional stars. The tournament touts an impressive list of alumni, including tennis greats Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, 2009 U.S. Open winner Juan Martín del Potro and current giant Roger Federer. On the women’s side, stars such as Amanda Coetzer and Jana Novotna competed in the Copa del Café before moving on to successful professional careers.
The cost of admission to the Copa del Café for the semifinals and finals ₡4,500-8,000 depending on seating. For more information, visit www.copacafe.com.
“We offer white meat, red meat, exotic meat, seafood, fish, different preparations,” said owner Hugo Salas Chaves. “Many times we leave it to the preference of the customer, what he wants, because you know that the way people eat, not everybody wants what’s on the menu.”
Hugo is nicknamed Perla, the Spanish name of a black girl with wild hair from the old “Our Gang” TV show.
“I didn’t comb my hair in school, and my hair is kinky, so they called me Perlita from ‘Our Gang,’” he said. “People sometimes call asking for la señora Perla, and I tell them there’s no Señora Perla here.”
Erik Downes, a pre-med student at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia is missing and presumed dead after getting caught in a rip tide while swimming Tuesday near Domincal Beach in the Southern Zone, according to the Costa Rican Red Cross.
Red Cross spokesman Freddy Roman said that rescuers from Ciudad Cortés are searching for the Florida native, but there were no further details at press time.
Downes is a pre-med student and vice president of the student body at Oglethorpe University, a private, liberal arts college. He traveled to Costa Rica with a group of Oglethorpe students for an environmental study abroad trip.
Oglethrope University sent an e-mail to students updating them on the situation.
“The thoughts and prayers of the entire Oglethorpe community are with Erik and his family and many friends,” said President Larry Schall in the email. "In a close-knit community of 1,100 students, this is having an impact on everyone."
Dean of Students Michelle Hall said the school would be providing counseling services for students as they returned from winter break Sunday. Other students swimming with Downes at the time of the incident were uninjured.
The school will hold a candlelight vigil for Downes at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Check www.ticotimes.net for updates on this situation.
I had a delicious chicken in peanut sauce here, and Guiselle raved over the cream of tomato soup, which she special-ordered to include tortillas and cheese, turning it into Azteca soup.
Perla said seafood remains his popular menu item. “People are inclined nowadays more than anything toward fish. We serve a lot of salmon, tuna, dorado, seabass, tilapia, and many times, in season, wahoo. Fishermen really like that. It’s a fish that’s not so easy to catch.”
— Karl Kahler
Contact Karl Kahler at firstname.lastname@example.org and Michael Krumholtz at email@example.com