Tag Archives: travel. tourism

Gen 2

Tuesday 27 February 2024 – Our luck with the Antarctic weather looked to be running out as we peered at the morning’s prospects from the cabin.

There was a stiff breeze (about 10 knots, we were told) and it was raining. The only redeeming feature, and it was only a marginal redemption, was that the temperature was above freezing – about 2°C.

We were parked in Salpetriere Bay, known as the “Iceberg Graveyard”, because the vagaries of prevailing wind and currents tend to shepherd passing icebergs into the bay such that they can’t then float out again.  Thus it seemed that a Zodiac cruise around the bay should give us some great icescapes.

It did.

It also gave us a great wildlife experience, one which I hadn’t expected and, indeed, one which even the guides found remarkable.

But first the scenery.  It was spectacular.

This was my favourite among the many scenes we enjoyed on the morning expedition.

We had been told that there were colonies of gentoo penguins in the bay, and so there were.

The ones above look quite neat and tidy in their back-and-white dinner suit outfits.  The colony as a whole

not so much.  The pinky-brown stuff is penguin shit.  And there’s a lot of it. Really, a lot.

The individual penguins are very penguinish.

Many of them are chicks or adults which are moulting and hence couldn’t go into the water.

Also on the wildlife front, I tried to capture a few shots of the birdlife around.  There were some shags on the rocks and several kelp gulls.  This one is an adult.

And a juvenile or two were flying around.

We also saw an Antarctic tern. We weren’t anywhere near its nest, so it wasn’t in attack mode.

Some of the penguins were in the water and were skipping about madly.

This tactic, called “porpoising”, is how they move at their fastest, some 35kph.  And we managed to catch sight of the reason why.

A leopard seal, the only seal species in these parts which eats penguins.  This was the unexpected treat for both us passengers and the guides.  These seals are solitary and elusive and some of the guides had rarely seen them.  This one was very curious about us

and came and played around our Zodiac, and the other ones that were in the same area as we were.  The water was clear enough that we could see it actually swimming around and under the boat, so we had several minutes in its company.

Extraordinarily, it was not the only leopard seal in the bay.  We came across another, basking on an ice floe,

which gave us a chance to see its snake-like, evil and Voldemortish head.

Amazingly, there was yet another, also basking,

which, like the others, was the centre of considerable attention.

Leopard seals are probably the most voracious of the seals, in that they prey on a huge variety of other creatures, including baby seals of other species, as well as penguins, fish and the ubiquitous krill.  To deal efficiently with the latter, they have evolved teeth of a special shape which close together to form a filter; the seals can take a mouthful of water and krill, and expend the water through clenched teeth, leaving just the krill to eat.

Crabeater seals (whose pups are prey for the leopard seals) also have this tooth configuration, as almost their entire diet is krill.  Leopard seals, on the other hand, have also got fearsome canines and strong jaws which allow them to catch and bite their other prey.  We were told not to put a hand in the water, as a bite from a leopard seal could actually take it off.

That was our wildlife treat for the morning, alongside the spectacular icescapes of the iceberg graveyard.  The afternoon had the possibility of a landing at a nearby site, reached after a short move by Hondius to a place called Port Charcot. Calling it a port rather overstates its extent.

On the top left you can just make out a cairn, which is a not to Jean Charcot, who was a Frenchman who made two noted expeditions mapping the Antarctic Peninsula in the early 20th century. He was part of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration between 1901 and 1920, during which thousands of kilometres of the coastline were mapped; the era included the Shackleton debacle and the Scott-Amundsen competition.

Those who were interested could walk up to the cairn; there was also a reasonably substantial colony of gentoo penguins on the island.  It was really quite windy and there was also a fair bit of rain in the air, moving more horizontally than vertically. On that basis, the visit to the cairn held few attractions for Jane and me, and we contented ourselves with stumbling and sliding our way to the penguins

across snow and ice which was lavishly decorated by algae, turning it green, and penguin shit, turning it also brown.

As is the norm with penguins, they were behaving in agreeably penguinish ways; I have video but internet bandwidth constraints mean it’s not practical to share it, I’m afraid.  There were adults feeding chicks;

penguins eating snow as a source of “fresh” water*,

which must be quite a test for their digestive system, I’d have thought; and several penguin highways, routes from the colony to the sea etched out by thousands of laborious penguin journeys.

The colonies tend to be high up because gentoos need rocks upon which to build nests (normally by stealing stones from their neighbours’ construction efforts), and the tops of hills is often where the snow is first cleared by the wind; hence the need for the journey from sea to colony.

The net effect is that the whole area is covered in penguin poo,

so being careful with one’s footing is very desirable.  You can’t avoid stepping in it, but you can at least try not to fall over in it, something that a couple of our landing party failed to do.

After a while of watching the penguins, we decided to head back down and go back to the boat.  The landing area was near one of the spots where the penguins entered the water

and we could see them porpoising around in the water close to the shore as they sought food (again, I have video, but blah blah).

It is impossible to walk there without getting one’s boots covered in penguin excrement, which is not something to be transported back to the boat: partly because that would possibly spread unwelcome biological material to where it shouldn’t be; and also because it stinks.  So the team take care to ensure that boots are well cleaned before you are allowed back on to a Zodiac.

Even so, clean as we were were on arrival to Hondius, there seemed to be a pervasive pong of penguin poo hanging around for a while afterwards.

That was it for the day’s excursions, but there was still some visual entertainment to come as Hondius was carefully steered up the narrow Lemaire Channel,

which, we were told, is one of the most dramatic and most-photographed pieces of coastline.  Obviously the best place to see the scenery from would be the bow of the ship.  But it was bloody freezing, raining and blowing a gale, so I, like other sensible souls, retired to the bridge to watch the scenery go by through windows which were obligingly cleaned by the large windscreen wipers there.

There were a few idiots hardy souls who braved the bow.  There always are.

The hour or so spent gingerly creeping along the channel was a perfect exemplar of the standard Walker holiday mantra: “it would have been better if it were clearer”.

It was obvious that the scenery was dramatic; I just wish we could have seen more of it.

It’s a very narrow channel, littered with ice

as you can see from the radar plot.

After a while the fog really came down and so I retired to the bar for a G&T and waited for the briefing for the morrow.  The destination, which is a fair bit north, is Mikkelsen Harbour at D’Hainaut Island, where can be found the remains of a whaling station and more gentoo penguins.  The weather prospects are less than stellar so it may well be that we will spurn the opportunity to get cold, wet and caked in penguin poo in favour of a calm and orderly morning. Time will tell.


* Gentoo penguins can drink salt water (just as well, really) and they have a special gland on their forehead through which they can excrete the salt. A tricky choice, I’d have said – which tastes better, ocean water or shitty snow?

Day 31 – Heredia: coffee in even more depth

Tuesday 21 March 2023 – We are staying at Finca Rosa Blanca, which is primarily a hotel/resort.  As well as the architectural quirks I mentioned in yesterday’s post, it has a nice line in decorative tiling.

and some other unusual touches in décor, such as this vine and Oropendola nest by reception.

It’s also billed as a coffee farm. There; that’s the revelation I promised in my last post, and it also gives you the tiniest clue as to what most of today’s entry is about. Yes – we had a coffee tour included in the schedule prepared for us by Pura Aventura.

Our guide was Paulo,

who was very knowledgeable and clearly passionate about his coffee.  We walked a few paces down the road to the entrance to the coffee farm

whilst he told us a little of the history of the place.  It was really not what I expected.

The original coffee farm is quite old, whereas the hotel part is relatively new, having been built in the 1980s. When the old coffee farm was put up for sale, the hotel owners decided to buy it, to prevent the land being used for property development.  Having bought what was a traditional, non-organic farm in 2002, they took the radical decision to make it organic.

This is not a trivial matter.

It involves ripping out whatever was there – all of the plants had been treated with chemicals, for example – and replacing them with a completely new plantation of coffee plants and other trees as well.  The process of being certified organic took six years, and so in 2008 they could start with the production of organic coffee.

They replanted coffee (Arabica, of course), as part of a mixed planting, with trees (eg Poro and Banana, underplanted with eg Monstera) to provide shade – important for temperature control, extra nutrients to the soil and to balance the water content, since Arabica is picky about soil moisture. Like the Nortico cacao operation, it’s a mixed system to provide the best growing environment and to preserve the richness of the soil.

The farm is small – 12 hectares – which makes it tiny compared to the 926 hectares at Aquiares, the biggest plantation in Costa Rica.  It’s so tiny, and so directed by the rigours of sustainable, shade-grown, organic coffee production that actually its main customer is the hotel itself. The farm sells a small amount of coffee in its own shop and possibly one or two other local sellers, but that’s it; it’s a sideline for the hotel, but an interesting one.

Listening to Paulo was to start to realise that the layers of complexity about coffee we’d started to peel back at Aquiares were, you guessed it, only a part of the bigger picture.

The Rosa Blanca farm produces sustainable, organic, shade-grown coffee, and it roasts its own – very different from the Aquiares operation which is not shade-grown, not organic and produces mainly green coffee beans which it sends to roasters for them to process.  This is not to say that the Aquiares products are at all inferior; but they are different; and it was interesting (and, yes, boggling) to understand this extra level of subtlety in assessing coffee.

We walked through the farm

towards the mill

with Paulo filling our already-boggling brains with more and more information.

For example: the farm had just finished its harvest.  This started in November, and consists of a first pass, where red cherries (i.e. good quality ones) are hand-picked for processing, followed by a second pass in January to (again hand-)pick any remaining red cherries.  Then in March, the final pass picks everything else – green or red., doesn’t matter; this third pass is destined for lower-grade coffee and it’s important that the coffee bushes are left stripped so they can start regenerating as part of preparation for the next crop.

Thus, when it started raining a couple of days ago, this was bad news, as the bushes started growing flowers again.

Flowers will lead to cherries, but they will ripen just as the rainy season starts (September) and will thus not be picked – not the right weather, and also no workers around to pick them.

We were already familiar with the distinction between Arabica and Robusta coffees. But – oh, goodness gracious me! – there was more to understand here, too.  There are some clear distinctions between the two sorts of coffees.

Arabica (originally from Ethiopia, rather than the Arabic part of Africa, actually) is picky about where it’ll grow – it has to be the right temperature, the right amount of rain (not too much, not too little), the right amount of sun, and it’s self-pollinating – in Costa Rica this means at a specific range of altitudes, between 800 and 2,000 metres above sea level. This sensitivity, by the way, is exposing the Arabica strain to considerable threat from climate change. According to some analyses, it won’t be long before Arabica coffee becomes a thing of the past.

Robusta is not a species, like Arabica, but a collection of species with similar characteristics.  They are, in a Ronseal kind of way, more robust about where they will thrive – so they will grow in lowlands, under a wider variety of weather conditions, and require insect pollination.  Robusta varieties are higher in caffeine which makes them more resistant to insect and other predators.

Robusta is lower quality than Arabica (right now there is no Robusta in Costa Rica). All instant coffee, everywhere, is made from Robusta strains. In Costa Rica, virtually all the top quality (first and second pass) coffee in the entire nation is exported; in the shops, the coffee will be on three shelves:  top shelf, $15 a bag, high quality; middle shelf, $4 a bag, lower quality; bottom shelf, maybe $1 per bag, is made from the third pass remnants. In Europe, supermarket (non-instant) coffee is all premium quality first or second pass coffee.

There’s a sort of Periodic Table of varieties. Here it is.  There will be a quiz later on.

Can’t read it? Doesn’t matter. It’s just too complicated unless you’re a complete coffee nut.

I was quite surprised to hear that coffee is not a principal component of Costa Rica’s export business. For all that most of their coffee is exported, it’s not that much in money terms. Costa Rica’s main export, it seems, is medical technology, an industry developed after Intel first came to the country in about 2005 and their presence catalysed the medical tech business here; it buggered off shortly thereafter, but the med tech companies stayed and are now Costa Rica’s main business.

Here’s the league table of coffee production (as of 2021):

Well, “there’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”, as the song goes, so no surprise there. But – Vietnam? It turns out that Vietnam’s coffee is based on Robusta. So, surprisingly, is that of Brazil. If you factor quality of coffee into that figure, many countries, Costa Rica among them, float up that chart.

If you can recall our day at the Aquiares plantation, you’ll remember the bewildering scale of the operation to process the cherries, which involved large buildings, lots of bits of machinery and vast numbers of sacks of coffee awaiting their journey to all corners of the globe.

Here’s the Rosa Blanca operation:

Skinning and initial fermentation

Everything else

Inside the Everything else building are various bits of machinery for dehusking,

sorting by density

and roasting.  All their roasting is done by one expert, Charlie.

It’s not large-scale or high tech, but it’s what’s needed for Rosa Blanca to make their coffee; and their coffee has won first prize awards, too.


With all of these extra shades of subtlety about coffee varieties, history, production and quality, Paulo then boggled us further with a tasting session.  We went upstairs where the table was laid out for us

and Paulo ground two sorts of coffee for us to examine, first dry

to sample the aroma, and then with added hot water (between 85 and 91°C, 190°F).

On the left is medium roast coffee and on the right, dark roast. If you watched the video above, you might have inferred that medium roast coffee is denser than dark roast coffee, as more gases inflate the dark roast beans in that extra minute of roasting. This can be seen just by dipping a spoon lightly into each sort

whereupon you can see that dark roast grounds tend to float more than medium roast grounds.

Having sniffed the dry grounds, we then sampled each coffee, trying to identify the various overtones that are available. The lighter the roast, the more floral or fruity the taste; the darker roast has less acidity but more bitterness.  Paulo pointed us at a flavour chart in the (completely unfounded) expectation that it would help us

I could have told you it was coffee and that the two tasted different from each other; Jane got a bit further by identifying a couple of key tastes. But I’m as useless at such subtlety as I once discovered that I also was with wine.  So it was interesting to note this level of nuance in the tasting of coffee, but Paulo gave us the most important rule:

The best coffee is… the one you like.

The way coffee is ground (coarse, medium, fine), the way it’s prepared (drip, French press, espresso machine) and the amount it’s roasted (light, medium, dark) all affect the final product.  Like wine or music there is no good or bad, simply what you like or don’t.

There were some nice decorative touches in the mill

Traditional coffee transport – ox-cart

Various grinding solutions

and outside there were racks for drying beans in the sun.

Rosa Blanca do fully-washed and other processes – fermented, honey, natural, as shown by the colour of the beans.

Left to right – Fermented, Natural, Honey, Fully-washed

All in all, it was another absorbing, educational and intense education session for us about the intricacies of coffee.  We walked back to the hotel, where another cup of coffee was made for us, to round off the experience, whereupon we retreated to our apartment to mull over what we’d learned (and I tried to write it up before I forgot all the stuff that I’d just been told).


This has brought you up to date. I sit here, typing in the present tense after a late lunch and we now start preparing for our departure from Costa Rica tomorrow, because this was our last call on our 13-stop itinerary around an extraordinary country.

It has been extraordinary.

In 31 days, I’ve taken a smidge over 4,000 photos on my Big Camera, and 1,300 photos and 200 videos on my phone. Jane has recorded over 1,400 photo and 65 videos on her phone. 200GB of content. Thank you, Nikon and Samsung, for your help with the quantity.  It has been a pleasure seeking the wheat from amongst the very considerable amount of chaff, and dressing it up so you can read about the many wonderful things we’ve seen whilst we’ve been here; thank you for accompanying us as we’ve stumbled from place to place.

Our taxi arrives to take us to the airport at – oh, fucking hell! – 0515 tomorrow.  I shall try to pull together some valedictory thoughts over the next couple of days to close off this section of this blog.  In the meantime…

Thank you. Thank you for reading my blog.



Day 7 (afternoon) – Tenorio National Park

Saturday 25 February 2023 – After the early morning excitement, I think we could have been forgiven for simply going back to bed to catch up with our kip. But no – the desire for relentless tourism drove us ever onwards.

I spent a little time writing up stuff for these pages.  This had to be done at the Casitas lodge, where they have an internet available.  They also have bird feeders, and so I was able to catch up with a few more species of the local wildlife, among them a Blue-crowned Motmot


These bird feeders gave us the opportunity for pictures of many more species, which I will come to in due course. But the next activity of the day called – a visit to the Tenorio National Park, which actually borders the Tapir Valley reserve, and is reached by simply going a litttle further along the road, past the reserve. (Tenorio is the name of the volcano at the centre of the national park.)

We’d read in the Pura Aventura notes that since it is a popular spot, it was best to go towards the end of the entry window so that we would get to the various sights after most people had left.  The last permitted entry time is 2pm, so we bowled up to the entrance at about 1245 where we made the first of two important discoveries – if it’s crowded (e.g. a weekend such as today), they only let people in in bunches. So we had to wait until 1pm until they let us in.


The second discovery was one we made almost by accident.  The main attraction of the place is a waterfall, and apparently most people simply go up as far as the waterfall and then go down again – but there are attractions beyond the waterfall, and we decided to go right to the end of the trail and work our way back along the other Things To See as well, rather than taking them in on the way up.  For reasons which will become clear if you read on, this was a wise decision and is my Tip For The Day to anyone visiting – go to the end and work back.  You’ll thank me.

The trail – there is only one – starts off as a formal path


before going on to less formal surfaces



which don’t necessarily hold up too well to the exigencies of thousands of feet and feet of rainfall in wet season.


Some it is quite steep, both up


and down.


In fact, I took a stumble going down one of these stretches. But it was OK; my phone broke my fall.  It’s tougher than I am, so no damage done except to my pride. And as I got up and dusted myself off, I caught sight of this colourful little fellow, a juvnile Central American Whip Tail Lizard.


The trail basically winds its way along in approximate company of the Rio Celeste river.  You can see various viewpoints on the the way, but, as I say, it’s good to see them coming down, i.e. effectively going down stream.

At the end of this formal trail is a remarkable sight which kind of sets the scene for the other Things To See on the way down, which anyone walking the trail will have caught some glimpses of already. But this is how it all starts.

This is the “Teñideros” where two rivers – Rio Buenavista and Quebrada Agria – meet. The pH change at the meeting point increases the particle size of aluminosilicates already present in Rio Buenavista. The waters of what is now Rio Celeste are then turned blue by sunlight scattering from the fragments. Some are also laid down as sediment – the white bar across the river. The myth runs that when the gods were painting the skies blue, this was where they washed their paintbrushes.

Moving further down the trail, you cross a bridge over the wonderful blue river.


until you come to a pool labelled “Borbollones”. You get no prize for working out how this translates to English.

Beyond Borbollones is the blue lagoon, a pretty reasonable description, I guess.


After some (quite stiff) more up-and-downery, you get to the most popular visitor spot. The signage for this quite fails to prepare you for what you’re about to undergo should you wish to visit.


“Catarata” is Spanish for “waterfall”, and it’s only 150 metres away. What could possibly go wrong?

Here is a clue.


It may be only 150 metres, but it’s a long way down.  This is the view looking back from the bottom.


That awaits you for when you’ve drunk in the very considerable sight that you stumbled down all those steps to see.

Spending several moments there, trying to ignore the gurning selfie addicts (admittedly there were only four, but that’s because we got our timing right, courtesy of Jane’s researches) and absorbing strength from the natural beauty and energy of the scene might – just – prepare you for the journey back.


Jane took this photo of me plodding up the steps – 253, I counted ’em – to the top.  (She was resting at that point. Hah!)

This is why it’s best to get to the top and work down.  Had we visited the waterfall on the way up, I doubt we would have had much enthusiasm for the further ups and downs that lead to the end of the trail.  It is quite a stiff walk. For four and a quarter miles, I  would normally expect to expend 425 calories or thereabouts.  This walk scored 825 on my activity monitor. No matter, it took us past some memorable scenes.

It also took us past a viewpoint where you could in theory see the Tenorio volcanoes.


One of them is Tenorio 1 and the other Tenorio 2. I don’t know which is which and the clouds got somewhat in the way. Ho, hum.

The park had one more treat for us as we went along.

Our fears of the place being overcrowded turned out to be unfounded, and all in all it was a very pleasant second excursion, albeit quite hard work.  In fact, such hard work that we realised there was only one thing for it – pizza and beer.  Fortunately, we had a recommendation for a pizza place in Bijagua (this is their Facebook page), so we hied ourselves there as fast as the speed limit and speed bumps would allow.  There, we had a very good pizza and some very welcome beer with a little cabaret which took place beside me as I ate pizza, and which Jane recorded.

before heading back to the Casitas to relax for the rest of the day.

I have a heart of stone – the dog remained unfed despite its cute trick.

We had a couple of very contrasting activities scheduled for the following day, both of which turned out to be more fun than I thought they might be. So, please come back and see what we got up to.  Hasta luego!