A question we get a lot is "where can I find the real thing?" (referring to stuff made here that you can take back). Over the years we've had the privilege of being able to wander around the country and here's a small "snapshot" of places where you'll find just that.

There's really two parts to the question . . . for most folk the idea is wrapped around something authentic that represents the country they are visiting and the second part in the minds of many (optimistically) is the idea that perhaps you can support the local economy in some way.

There are very few uniquely Costa Rican items anywhere in the country because in large part, unlike a number of other latin countries, Costa Rica always had a very small indigenous population (the reasons for that means you're just going to have to visit to find out).

As you plan a trip to Costa Rica, you may want to think about adding these places to your itinerary to help support local folk. You wont find a "hecho in Mexico" or "made in China" in any of these places.

In San Jose just north of the center you'll find a lovely shop called the Namu gallery - about 30 or 40 mins from here. They collect and sell only indigenous art from groups like the Borucans and the Maleku. Their sales help support these indigenous communities. Namu is a one of a kind in Costa Rica and is doing the right thing - drop by and ask Aisling about the communities they support with their efforts: http://www.galerianamu.com

You can also visit Boruca - about 5 hours south of Alajuela (relatively easy to get to, drive past Manuel Anatonio) and a spectacular visit in a beautiful village where most of the folk are somehow connected to the selling of intricately carved and painted masks and the police station is shuttered closed. You need a 4*4 to get to the village but worth the effort. Local residents Mike and Lara are helping with a web site here: http://www.borucacr.org/help.html

You can visit the Maleku if you travel to Arenal as do 80% of our visitors but nearly nobody goes another few km to the Maleku reserve. The Maleku can organize tours for you that your hotel can hook you up with to visit things like poison dart frogs, medicinal plants and a "museum" (really a twig hut but a great visit where you may be able to find a necklace made from Gar fish scales). The people are wonderful and need your support . . . they make some art such as rain sticks, iguana covered drums etc. Not far from the Maleku reserve 9and a great local place to stay) you'll find our friends Steve and Debbie at : http://leavesandlizards.com/

You may not have heard about the Chorotega? Yup right on your way to the northern and central Guanacaste beaches near Santa Cruz - distinctive pottery in pre-colombian styles. Most people wizz right by . . . here's a tale from one of our trips that brought us to Guaytil, the Chorotega village: http://puravidahotel.com/ostionalwebpage.html - do drop by Fatimas "rural university" at the entrance to the village. This would be a great stopover on your way to visit turtles at Junquillal and our good friend Joan's Hotelito Si Si Si here: http://hotelitosisisi.com/

You can visit the Bribri in the Caribbean zone . . . take a day trip to Yorkin (if your trip includes Puerto Viejo or Cahuita), a delightful indigenous group - and the largest in Costa Rica . . . the trip is by dugout and they make chocolate, bows and arrows as well as the occasional painting (which you should snap up because their output in nearly zero). If you're in the neighborhood you might try staying at Wendy's here: http://www.cashewhilllodge.co.cr/ - a great base for exploring the area and visiting the Bribri

Many tourists also visit Sarchi, the home of the woodworkers of Costa Rica just 30 minutes from the Pura Vida Hotel. You'll find all kinds of local wood stuff and things like our famous rocking chairs (very good for pondering about peace) and ox carts and such. If you go, try and visit the last authentic waterwheel driven oxcart factory still run by the nearly octogenarian Alfaro brothers - find the big church/giant oxcart and wander around about 300 meters north and west of the church and you'll see their ancient factory. Make sure to leave a small donation in the box for using up their time showing you their wonderful and ancient contraptions.

Finally, there are more but you'll also find interesting things in some hotel gift shops - look for locally produced items - often wood, some home made textiles but sometimes some nice ceramics - in particular the famous PEFI ceramics (which you can find at the Pura Vida and a few other nice places) made by the daughter in law of Don Pepe Figueres (the guy who established modern Costa Rica and no doubt pondered peace in our time after he abolished the army in 1948 while sitting in a famous Sarchi rocking chair).

You may have to work finding these people, places and things but they'll be worth it :-), Berni

A teacher asks:

We'd like to bring some surplus materials with us on our trip. What do you need?

This is something we posted on TripAdvisor this month.

Schools in Costa Rica work differently than what you may have experienced. One aspect we (and our guests) work with is the severe shortage of books - the esential unaffordability of a $15 text book in an economy that is supported by $2 and $3 an hour wages.

There are many reasons for the shortage of books and the lack of a reading habit that is an indirect spin off of the culture. Yet this is a culture that is more committed to their children than most. And a culture that is proud of it's history of pacifism, healthcare and literacy. How is it possible to have one of the highest literacy rates on the planet (around 97%) and almost no libraries and few books? But how do YOU define literacy?

The good news is that Costa Rica is currently ranked #1 in a 2009 survey of primary school enrollment.

But what has that got to do with literacy? Here it essentially means the child can "read and write". But when mandatory schooling stops at age 15 with a very low graduation rate and no books what is the likelihood that the child will later bump into Kafka or Marquez or understand what a 48% interest rate really means on that first refrigerator they buy?

How will you grasp the significance of the precedents for the Geneva convention or even the history of evolution.

Kids can and DO graduate from school life with very little access to books. They are just too expensive and take a beating in the wet and creature filled neo-tropics. For the last few years we have had good success cajoling our guests to bring some books for the kids along with their luggage.

These books have been donated to Escuela Tuetal Sur which is located in a small modest rural community just north of Alajuela. There is more info here: Escuela Tuetal Sur

We also lately have been working donations for the Escuela Poasito (destroyed in the Jan 8th 2009 earthquake epicentered near the village on the slopes of Poas volcano). Our focus at Poasito school is to find old laptops people no longer need and get a computer lab started as it is so much harder to find the correct books.

These 2 schools are "almost" typical public primary schools - kindergarten through age 12. Tuetal Sur school has 350 children this year and Poasito has 250. If we get books more suitable for older kids, they will go to Colegio Tuetal Norte - the closest high school about 1km from the hotel. The colegio has 510 children this year and a library with less than 300 old tattered books last time I counted.

The education and literacy issue is a complex one but here are a few local factoids. In Costa Rica, the government (MEP - Ministry of Education) provides the teachers but the neighborhood must find ways to house them (build classrooms, assembly areas, toilets and the like).

Most schools do not have libraries and there is no funding for such. The children are fed their main meal of the day for the equivalent of 25 cents (US). The schools have very few supplies (by comparison to what you may be used to) and in many poor rural neighborhoods the parents are unable to afford to help. Kids drop out of "colegio (high school)" early or do not graduate in part due to the inability to afford books and uniforms or to retain the required curriculum.

Thanks to the efforts of the school staff and the help of some of the gringo visitors a library is now an active part of school life at Escuela Tuetal Sur. Poasito has a couple of laptops and computer supplies and luckily a local high speed internet connection but as yet no internet access.

Both schools are "model schools" in many ways but most of all through their management. The directors of both schools (Snr Soto in Tuetal Sur and Snra Barrantes in Poasito) have a tremendous commitment to education, are leaders in their villages and are held up as models for schools for many miles around. They make a very interesting visit for anyone interested in education.

To date our guests have donated many books as well as a large amount of school supplies. Contact the hotel for a list of the things that are needed. You'd be very welcome to deliver them yourselves to either school. Escuela Tuetal Sur is 1km from the hotel gates and Escuela Poasito is on the slopes of Poas Volcano on your way back from visiting the volcano park. We'd be happy to introduce you to either. Thanks again for visiting and taking time with the kids - the future stewards of the national parks and reserves you'll be visiting this trip.

A guest sometimes wonders where their email response went from yesterday.

Essentially we use the slower electrons in the neo-tropics (and rainy season) often interspersed with some nice Cuban music . . . sorry about the delay!

As one engineer with the local internet provider (called ICE . . . which may explain a lot) told me . . . "in the rainy season OUR Wimax can't get up YOUR hill because all the trees will be full of water" . . . I have not been able to substantiate this information made more confusing to me after 3 ICE guys showed up to disconnect a neighbors Wimax service that had been working fine.

Of course there's always this snippet I just discovered (though well known by some for decades): The de Broglie wavelength l of an electron with kinetic energy T = 150 eV is 0.1 nm, which is comparable with distances between neighboring atoms in an ordinary molecule and in usual condensed matter. In general, l = 0.1 x (150 eV / T ) 1/2 nm becomes greater at lower T, and eventually reaches 7.7 nm at thermal energy at room temperature. Although this notion is well known for eight decades, some of current calculations on transport of slow electrons in condensed matter remain based upon the classical trajectory of an electron.

I am thinking that every day I get closer to the truth of "the matter", or just matter.

See you next month, your confirmation went out this morning, sorry for the delay!

George asks today:

Looking to stay the night and then fly to La Fortuna. The hotel is close to the airport. Just cannot see myself flying and driving 4 hrs doesn't seem very relaxing. Your web site seems laid back sort of what I'm looking for in my vacation. Also is La Fortuna worth the 4 hr trip to see the volcano and the natural springs. I trust your opinion.

"Well, as 80% of our guests seem to start their trip to Costa Rica this way and it is also one of our favorite destinations, then my answer is "YES" . . . what you need on the other end though is a nice place to stay and people who'll point you in the right direction when you get there. We last stayed st Steve and Debbies Leaves and Lizards http://leavesandlizards.com/index.htm a couple of months back. You'll need a 4WD to get in - a bit bumpy.

This view from our cabins bedroom was just what a vacationing Innkeeper could want:

Yes, its worth it. Um worth what?

Today's question:

How much difficulty will I have bringing back lots of souvenirs coming through SJO airport. I am arriving on a domestic flight. Will my baggage be searched?

No worries. . . the process is fast, efficient and easy on this end. The airport is fairly small and quite modern. All the international airlines are in the same terminal. The domestic SANSA terminal is a 10 minute walk if you are tring to make a domestic connection. The other airline is Nature Air and they are a 30 to 40 minute taxi ride away.

Go to the International SJO airport, pay your taxes first (turn right as you enter the airport and you'll find the tax payment desks), go in line for your plane (TIP: print boarding passes first if you can within 24 hours of departure and you can usually get the airline people to allow you to skip the entire line).

Gifts are gifts and no interest to baggage searchers (yes your baggage will be searched but your mileage may vary) . . . and nobody is counting typical tourist gifts (well unless you have guns, drugs and nobody has yet smuggled 10 flat screens OUT of Costa Rica without first being offered psychiatric assistance by the airport authorities). On the way in to the US we have not had a problem lately. US passport people are even being taught to say "welcome back" again after being a bit strange after 9-11. Good luck, Berni

Today I'll start a little service we'll call "Ask Berni" . . . every day we dispense info about traveling in Costa Rica . . . as guests ask interesting questions, I'll post new entries here. We'll start with a common question to get the idea going:

Today's Question:

I will be driving to Monteverde - do I need a 4WD - will a RAV4 or a Terrios work? It seems like a short ride from Arenal to Monteverde, Jim


Regarding the car: you do not need a 4WD for the traction, more the ground clearance in Monteverde. Neither small 4WD has a huge amount of ground clearance but better than the standard 2WD's. Let me know if you want either and they can be delivered to your breakfast table on the 17th - say - at 8am? The other thing to be aware of is the seemingly short driving distance between Arenal and Monteverde. The problem is you have to add the distance DOWN one side, ACROSS the center and then UP the other side of each pothole between Arenal and Monteverde. Then, for those potholes which are too deep (when viewed with the naked eye, you can't see bottom), you need to add the distance required to circumnavigate the crater. For those potholes too wide to circumnavigate (fill most of the road) you need to add in the off road detours required to avoid them completely. Then there is a final category of pothole which I call "whatonearthweretheythinking whentheytriedtofilltheholewithan oldoildrum".

This category takes the longest to navigate because everyone will want to get out and take photos of it - this slows you down to a dead halt.

Of course this diatribe on potholes doesn't stop many hardy souls from doing it in a nice Daihatsu Terrios - the most widely rented car in Costa Rica - um also a 4WD (the road to Monteverde is sometimes the third worst road in Costa Rica).

Mark and Amy of karmalizedpictures.com just did this one for us. The bug is the passion fruit beetle BTW. Thanks Mark y Amy, we enjoyed your visit and the trip to the junglas of Tortuguero!