Green eating Costa Rica

Costa Rica is possibly one of the most progressive countries in the world: last year, 100% of energy supplied to homes was from renewable sources, it has no army, a University of Peace, endless eco-projects, a focus on green tourism… and so naturally it also has a large veggie/vegan population. Although the average meal will cost considerably more than in other Latin American countries, the towns have an undeniably hippie vibe, and there are a plethora of little veggie and vegan cafes and restaurants to get stuck into.

Dominical is one of many such little surfer beach towns I visited on my travels, and although all the restaurants offered veggie options something kept drawing me back to Café Mono Congo. With an enormous menu of both veggie and vegan choices of various tastes, there was something for everyone. I became addicted to their giant breakfast burritos: stuffed with rice, beans, avocado, plantain, salsa picante, and a choice of egg or tofu, and optional cheese.

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They also had a zesty quinoa salad, smoky bean stew, lasagna stuffed with veggies, curry, vegan beers and cider (god I’ve missed cider), fresh smoothies, incredible coffee, and a huge fridge full of brownies, buns, tartlets and other treats. Next door was the best health food shop I’ve seen in my travels, packed to the gills with tofu/seitan meats, hummus, baba ganoush, vegan cheese, fresh local fruit and veg, wholegrains, pulses, natural treatments and anything else the ethical grocery shopper might ever dream of.

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Mandala was sadly the only restaurant I had time to visit in the vast array of veggie places in San Jose, but I was not disappointed by the unusually delicate tasting (and hard to find) Thai curry. They also made the best natural lemonade (served in a hipster jar, but forgivable for the flavour).

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In Montezuma, which I think may be my spiritual home, every restaurant has awesome veggie options including hummus, falafel, curries, salads etc. and so most of the time I didn’t even have to bother looking for veggie restaurants. Although it was tasty, I was slightly disappointed with the rather expensive salad at Café Organico, but they do host live music some evenings so it’s worth checking out.

The best surprise here was that the ice cream place Ice Dream which, as well as selling some delish looking dairy free sorbets, makes these vegan tofu veggie rolls which are both incredible looking and tasting- especially with the peanut dipping sauce!

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In Santa Teresa, you can’t miss having lunch at Olam Pure Food. I wanted to eat everything on the menu, but being slightly hungover ordered the vegan pizza. What I got I wouldn’t exactly call a pizza- the wholegrain crust was tasty but decidedly not bread, and the tofu cheese was soft rather than melty- but nevertheless it was delicious and satisfying, and all natural.

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Tamarindo was my final stop, and at Pura Vegan I ate the best red Thai curry of my life: the first genuinely spicy thing I’d had in months, rich and full of flavour, I couldn’t stop eating but I didn’t want it to end. I’m genuinely sad now thinking how I will never get to eat it again.

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Given that at home my diet is mostly made up of hummus and gin, I was delighted to address the chronic hummus deficiency I’ve suffered from while travelling at the Falafel Bar, which I visited multiple times to have variations of falafel, hummus, and shakshuka. Apparently people are such fans of the place you can even by shirts and hats celebrating the falafel bar. As amazing as the food was, I’m not sure I’m enough of a falafel enthusiast to commit to a hat…. though if someone can find me a hummus hat, I’d gladly show it off everywhere I go.

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The good thing in Costa Rica is, if you’re short of cash, it’s for once very easy to make the cheap food in local restaurants veggie: casadas are the omnipresent plato typico for Costa Ricans, and there is usually a version vegetariana that contains just rice, beans, plantain, avocado, eggs, and cheese (you could probably even ask to skip the dairy if you’re vegan, you’ll just get a funny look. Filling, not (too) unhealthy, and easy on the wallet, I ended up eating a lot of these… and an interesting note to leave on- apparently they are called a casada  (which means married)-  because the saying is that if you marry a Tico (Costa Rican) woman, that is the meal you will end up eating for the rest of your life. Could be worse!

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New beginnings

This winter I finally did the thing I had thought about for so long: I handed in my notice at work, told my housemates to put a vacancy ad up for my room, and bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia. In May I will be embarking on a solo adventure through South and Central America with just my plane ticket and my backpack, and vague intentions to be back by Christmas, but really, who knows? I have a map of the region and a vague route planned through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, but I am open, and for once have the flexibility, to just see what happens.

I have always wanted to get out into the world and travel long term, but at the usual gap year age of 18 I was far too shy and anxious (and too poor), and like everyone else, as soon as I got into work (finally) after university I had debts and needed financial security and the stability for a while, and to gain experience. I was never able to travel with work but I did always make a personal commitment to saving a large chunk of my income each month and managed a couple of longer holidays; one in India, and a safari tour through Southern Africa, but it was never long enough and I never felt able to really get to know other countries, people, and cultures properly.

This time it will not be rushed. If possible I will spend a month in each country, learn Spanish, and integrate with locals as much as possible. At the end of my trip I hope to spend a few months in my final destination, Nicaragua, rent a room and find a volunteer position within a women’s/human rights organisation, and maybe teach a bit of English or do freelance work to keep my savings from dwindling too low.

This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had to make heart-breaking sacrifices in my personal life, give up the job that I had always wanted (working in publishing within a charity), the home I shared with friends, the town I’d become settled in, and to sell or give away a lot of my possessions, including my beloved car, Poo-Jo. It’s the first time in my life I feel completely uncertain about what the future holds.

As scary as this seems to me, though, the opportunity to travel in this way is, I am very aware, a privilege, and one that I am extremely fortunate to be in the position to be able to choose to take. While more people are moving around the world now than ever before, most do not have the luxury of being able to leave their home by choice. War, terrorism, political instability, discrimination, and climate change have forced seemingly more people than ever to flee their home countries and there are now an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. It is a matter of shame and outrage to me that my own country, ‘Great’ Britain, has utterly failed to meet its human rights obligations to provide adequate shelter and protection to people desperately seeking refuge, particularly unaccompanied minors. So before I fly to Bolivia, I’ll spend a month volunteering at the Women’s Refugee Centre at the Dunkirk Refugee Camp in France to try to offer whatever help I can give.

I have thought about this a lot, and in many ways I have wondered if it is a failure on my part, and selfish, to be moved by this and yet to  still offer only a month, relative to the time I will spend travelling for personal enjoyment and development, and realistically it probably is. I have justified it to myself on the basis that I have worked and saved hard to be in the position to do this. Not being particularly well paid working in the publishing/charity sector, I have often had to skip social activities I really wanted to do with friends, mostly live off cheap food like rice and beans, avoided ever buying new clothes etc. and have lived in a small shared house that is falling apart in order to save money for a long time, because travel is the thing that has always meant more to me than all of that. I hope that, by travelling with good intentions, favouring eco-tourism and local companies, and offering whatever volunteer help I can to small local organisations working on issues I care about along the way, I will at least be making a fair attempt to enjoy this privilege with as much responsibility and care for the places and people I will meet as possible. Apart from the travel experiences, my end goal with this trip is to gain volunteering experience in human rights work, before doing whatever else I have to do to be able to nudge my career over in this area. This is not because of a (potentially patronising and self important) desire to fight on behalf of others, but simply to be able to offer whatever support is needed to people that have been discriminated against in their own fights for justice, and for the same freedoms we should all be able to enjoy as equal citizens of the world. Idealistic? For sure. But well intentioned, and better than doing sweet f/a? I certainly hope so.

As I travel I will be writing about my adventures, the people, the wildlife, the landscapes, as well as political issues I care/am learning about (particularly in the areas of human/women’s rights, LGBT issues, refugees, labour rights, the environment, and sustainable international development), inspiring work I have seen, maybe some veggie/vegan food recommendations for other travellers, and anything else.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading my blog and get in touch if you have any ideas, thoughts, recommendations, or if you happen across this and are also travelling in this region in 2017 and want to meet up, please do send a message! I am not sure what the next year will bring, but I am very excited for the adventure that is ahead.

Peace and love,

Helen