From Culture and Arts

Puff, Pass & Pastry at Cannabis Creative: Integrating cannabis into cooking classes and beyond

Inside Oakland's Cannabis Creative. #stayhighfam
Inside Oakland’s Cannabis Creative. #stayhighfam

Words and photos by Nadia Ibanez

Work and life has been pretty insane lately. I’ve had to use the critical thinking and logical part of my brain heavily for the last few weeks at work and I’ve found myself mentally exhausted each evening. My workout routine has amped up and I love it, but I’ve found myself looking for more creative hobbies to mellow out my brain and body.

Cannabis has become a huge part in my effort to find the creative side of my brain again. I’ll find an uplifting and creativity-inducing strain and take a long walk in the park, re-organize my room, color, paint, or watch a movie. I’ve always been a creative and imaginative person and cannabis has really helped the functions of the right side of my brain shine through again.

Enter Puff, Pass & Pastry. My love for baking, eating, and weed all in one room? And with like-minded people who also think it’s OK to smoke a little before starting a new creative project?! YES, please.

Chef Sallie's Cannabutter.
Chef Sallie’s Cannabutter.

The Puff, Pass & Pastry event is an off-shoot of Puff, Pass & Paint, a Denver, CO-based company specializing in offering pottery, painting, and culinary classes in a cannabis-friendly environment. Local edibles chef Sallie B of Slim’s Baked Goodies lead us through a 2.5 hour class as we learned the basics of cannabutter and how to integrate medicated oils into everyday cooking.

The class was held at Cannabis Creative in West Oakland at a super rad warehouse in the middle of an emerging neighborhood. Upon walking in, we were greeted by the owners who handed us mimosas, a vape pen presented by Alchemy, and a sweet little joint rolled by one of the lady bosses.

The work room was covered in art from previous Puff, Pass & Paint classes, bright murals, plants, and other adorable accessories. If I had my own creative studio, I’m pretty sure it would be identical to this place. (If you guys make it to the studio, ask about the baby pineapple they’re growing!)

The Mother's Day menu from Puff, Pass & Pastry with Chef Sallie B.
The Mother’s Day menu from Puff, Pass & Pastry with Chef Sallie B.

We had some time before class to settle in while all of the students arrived. We sampled all kinds of vape pens and drank mimosas while a FAT joint was passed around. The energy was festive and silly; everyone was in the mood to learn and create.

Oakland's Cannabis Collective
Gettin’ festive with Oakland’s Cannabis Collective.

Chef Sallie told us a bit about her story before diving into the basics of cooking with cannabis. We nibbled on some brunch items she had already prepared before we made our own stuffed French Toast infused with cannabis. The food was awesome, the conversation with everyone at the table was engaging, and I was already thinking about when I’d come again for another class.

Oakland Cannabis Creative and the Puff, Pass folks have definitely helped to shift the way I think about cannabis and its integration into everyday life. I’m still a pretty new smoker, but I’m so happy that the Bay Area is able to offer events like this one.

For more information and tickets, visit www.PuffPassAndPaint.com and www.CannabisTours.com. For more information on Chef Sallie, visit www.SlimsBakedGoodies.com.

 

Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle: Where color, nature and avant-garde shapes come to play



Chihuly Garden and Glass and Space Needle
The Glasshouse at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle

Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez

Sometimes when I travel and know I’m headed to a landmark everyone knows and raves about, I’ll intentionally ward off all photos and online reviews so I can actually experience it for the first time with my own eyes. There’s something magical about going somewhere you know everyone loves and savoring the surprise for yourself.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Seattle these days and Chihuly Garden and Glass came highly recommended. If you’ve been to the Bellagio in Vegas, or one of the 200 museums where his work lives, you’re well aware of the magnificence in Chihuly’s creations. But if you want to be surrounded by beautiful glass installations – inside, outside and ceiling to floor – Chihuly Garden and Glass is definitely a must see.

We visited the Garden on a typically cloudy day and spent the day learning about Chihuly’s educational background, the things that have inspired his work, and where you can find his avant-garde pieces around the world. You could spend hours at this place and I highly recommend you do.

Every corner you turn, vivid colors and wild shapes are thrown in your face – in the best way possible.

Chihuly's Glass Forest
Chihuly’s Glass Forest

You’ll start your walking tour in the Glass Forest and mosey on into the Northwest Room and amazing Sealife Room. Don’t forget to spend some time in the Persian Ceiling room – it’s absolutely mesmerizing. My favorite room definitely was the Mille Fiori room where dozens of glass forms mimic extraterrestrial flora. The explosion of color is absolutely stunning.

Chihuly's Mille Fiore
Chihuly’s Mille Fiore

Chihuly-Mille-Fiore

“I’ve been inspired by so many things,” Chihuly says on the audio tour. “One of which was growing up in a garden that my mother had. She had beautiful rhododendrons and azaleas and I got to play in the garden and be around all of these beautiful, natural forms. They also had a big influence on me, in terms of color.”

Chihuly's Chandeliers
Chihuly’s Chandeliers

Chihuly-Chandelier-blue

Water lovers will appreciate the Ikebana and Float Boats room where glass pieces are placed in wooden row boats. Chihuly’s actual drawings, which came to fruition after his eye accident, are on display on the Drawing Wall. The enormous Chandeliers and the Macchia Forest are next on the tour and the colors and contrast will blow your mind.

Chihuly-Space-Needle
The Space Needle and a spattering of clouds. So Seattle.
Outside at the Chihuly Garden
Outside at the Chihuly Garden

The Glasshouse makes for the perfect photo op and if you angle your camera the right way, the Space Needle and City Center make for a great backdrop. The floral sculpture is 100 feet long and 25 feet high and is designed to fill up the glasshouse while also leaving a lot of negative space for your eyes to wander. Lastly, the Garden is a great way to end your tour. The natural landscape and glass complement each other in a beautiful way and makes for a great place to sit, relax and enjoy the scenery.

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Chihuly Garden and Glass hosts other events revolving around kids, food, music and even yoga. If you’re a local Seattleite, check out their events calendar. This place is unreal and definitely worth spending a few hours in. You’ll be amazed at everything within these walls. For more information, visit www.chihulygardenandglass.com.

Thank you to the team at Chihuly Garden and Glass for letting us visit! We can’t wait to come back!

Chicago Tours for History Buffs, Foodies, Cocktail Fans and the Sexually Explorative

Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez

I never used to be one who would attack a brand new city with a bunch of touristy things. But when you’re trying to tackle a city like Chicago in just a few days, sometimes you just gotta sign up for a tour and go along for the ride. During my trip to the Windy City, I went on a handful of Chicago tours both within the downtown area and beyond.

From tame architecture and history tours, to sexy red light district tours, here’s a list of some of the Chicago tours you can go on while exploring this amazingly beautiful city.

Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour with Chicago Detours

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History lessons have never been my strong suit. I have trouble listening to someone chatter about history while I’m in a new city, let alone a classroom, because I’m busy looking around at all of the sights. But, Chicago Detours is a company you want to get to know if you’re seeking a Chicago history lesson with some booze and bites.

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We started our tour at the Tribune Tower and the Intercontinental Hotel where we learned a brief history of the city, who helped to build commerce in the area, what industries fared well during growth, and more. After wandering the streets and learning more about the secret life of drinkers and booze during the prohibition era, we stepped inside the original Billy Goat Tavern.

Outside of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago.
Outside of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago.

Billy-Goat-Tavern

Any old school Saturday Night Live fan will immediately yell, “Cheezborger, Cheezborger! No Pepsi…Coke!” in their heads upon hearing about this pit stop. The Billy Goat Tavern was definitely my favorite stop on this tour mostly because of the people watching, the fantastic bar and bartenders, historic memorabilia all over the walls, and of course, the cheeseburgers.

By the time the tour was over, not only did we learn about how booze shaped the city in nearly every decade, but we also boozed at every stop. From beers at Billy Goat, to wine and appetizers at the Tortoise Club and a historic mansion, we experienced the booze culture in nearly every way imaginable.

Pizza & Cocktails Tour with Chicago Pizza Tours

Pizza and booze in Chicago is like peanut butter and jelly to the rest of the country; it just goes together and there’s no explanation. Chicago’s deep dish pizza is globally famous and I had to get my hands on all of the pizza I could. If you’re in town for a short period of time and want to try all of the famous pizza spots in the area, I highly recommend booking a Pizza & Cocktails Tour with Chicago Pizza Tours.

Pizza from Flo & Santo's.
Pizza from Flo & Santos.

Our group met at Flo & Santos, a thin-crust pizza spot favorited by local Chicagoans. We ordered up some cocktails and local brews while our table was flooded with huge thin-crust pizzas with toppings inspired by local tastes. The Flo’s Polish was topped with Polish Kielbasa, sauerkraut and bacon, while Marco’s Italian Beef was topped with shaved beef, giardiniera, caramelized onion and roasted tomatoes. We all shared our stories and what brought us to Chicago, before we headed to the next joint.

Pizza Serio's Margherita pizza
Pizza Serio’s Margherita pizza is to die for.

Throughout the evening, we stopped by Pizzeria Serio in the Lakeview neighborhood for Neapolitan-style pizza, the famous Lou Malnati’s in the Gold Coast neighborhood for a taste of history, and Pizano’s for Oprah’s favorite deep dish and dessert. The drinks continued to flow throughout the night and we all naturally befriended each other by the end of the tour.

Lou Malnati's Sausage pizza.
Lou Malnati’s Sausage pizza.

If you’re traveling solo, this tour is perfect for you. There’s nothing like a few too many gin and tonics to open up even the most timid of travelers. The pizza was all fantastic and I totally get why people have Chicago pizza shipped to their homes after visiting these spots. Not only do you get a taste of Chicago history on these tours, but you also get a sense of why this city attracts all walks of life.

Lincoln Park Food Tour with Chicago Food Planet

I’m always one to try and discover hip and up-and-coming neighborhoods while traveling and I had been hearing a lot about Lincoln Park. Located about 20 minutes outside of the Chicago Loop and downtown area, Lincoln Park is an adorable neighborhood offering culture, historical sights, delicious food, shopping and more.

Chicago Food Planet
Cupcakes galore on the Lincoln Park Tour with Chicago Food Planet.

I signed up for the two-hour Lincoln Park Food Tour with Chicago Food Planet, which specializes in walking tours of Chicago’s best neighborhoods outside of heavily-touristed areas. This tour company takes guests around Chicago’s neighborhoods while educating travelers about how the local food culture came to be and how artists, immigrants, students, professionals, and everyone else has shaped the area.

Bacino's Spinach Supreme stuffed pizza.
Bacino’s Spinach Supreme stuffed pizza.

Deemed one of Chicago’s most diverse and largest neighborhoods, we learned all about Lincoln Park’s history with our tour guide, Jackie. We heard about the area’s history and people, while tasting specialty, locally-made items like popcorn, cupcakes, bagels, luxury chocolate and stuffed pizza. (PS: The pizza from Bacino’s was out of this world!) Lincoln Park is a great city for eating, drinking and shopping so if you feel like you’ve tackled downtown Chicago and want a glimpse into the ‘burbs, make sure to add this neighborhood to your list.

Chicago Food Planet operates tours in other parts of town, including the Gold Coast, Old Town, Bucktown, Wicker Park and Chinatown. Our guide, Jackie, was absolutely lovely and super smart and we couldn’t have asked for a better guide. If you fall in love with one of the stops on the tour, Chicago Food Planet offers discounts at the shops or restaurants for purchases after the trip concludes.

Red Light District Tour with Weird Chicago

If you really want to see a part of Chicago with the perfect blend of grit, boozy history and scandal, check out Weird Chicago tours immediately. This tour brought some light into the sex and kink scene of today and the bygone era. Fancy a trip to a sex dungeon? Ever wanted to meet a man who custom manufactures bustiers and thigh-high leather boots? Or, do you need to freshen up your education on today’s sex toys? Then look no further than the Red Light District Sex Tour.

Weird Chicago Tours
One of several incriminating photos from an evening with Weird Chicago Tours.

This Chicago tour is a bit difficult to put into words, especially if you’re tame at heart, because the intel that I gathered on this trip would make anyone blush. Join the group as an open-minded individual, with your friends, or significant other. And be prepared for some silly, while also incredibly intriguing, narration. Let’s just say that by the time the tour was over, I found myself in a swing in the middle of a sex dungeon, tried on some vintage-inspired bustiers, and got a glance into electro-magnetic stimulation at a sex shop.

I guarantee you’ll end the night all hot and bothered with a new wealth of information about the Chicago local sex industry. But if sex dungeons and toys aren’t totally your thing, Weird Chicago also offers tours about the city’s ghosts, criminal history, gangsters and “Murder Castle.”

Architecture Tour with Shoreline Sightseeing

Chicago skyline
Checking out the Chicago skyline with Shoreline Sightseeing.

If you’re looking for a relaxing Chicago tour of the downtown area’s architecture and skyscrapers, I suggest an Architecture Tour with Shoreline Sightseeing. This 75 minute tour, great for those in a time crunch, takes you down the Chicago River and among the most notable towers and skyscrapers. You’ll learn about the engineering of these buildings, who made them, who occupies the space now, and so much more. Ever wondered about the uniquely-shaped round parking structure in the middle of the Loop, or the Aqua high rise apartment building that mimics the image of waves when viewed from atop each balcony? Or the history behind the champagne-bottle shaped Carbide & Carbon building? You’ll learn all about these landmarks and more on this tour.

Chicago skyline Marina City
From the stunning to peculiar, Shoreline shows off all of Chicago’s tallest assets.

Chicago skyline

I hopped on the Architecture River Tour, which launches off from two different locations, and we saw more than 40 different, distinctly Chicago landmarks. I highly recommend going on the tour right around sunset, or at least while the sun is out, as the boat is uncovered and offers amazing views.

The Aqua apartment complex in Chicago.
The Aqua apartment complex in Chicago.

Design your own Self-Guided Tour at the Art Institute

Art Institute of Chicago
Just one of the many rooms filled with art from around the globe.

The Chicago Art Institute tops everyone’s list of must-see places but with almost a million square feet of explorable space, the idea of seeing everything can be daunting. From modern art and photography, to marble sculptures and Picassos, there’s something here for everyone. I only had a few hours to spend at the Art Institute and luckily there were a few options to help maximize my time.

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Before you visit, check out the website’s section for themed mini tours. Or, download the Art Institute app or opt for an audio guide. Whatever your speed, you’ll find a ton of interesting exhibits.

Editor’s Note: Thank you to ALL of the tour companies who allowed me to join your group outings! Thank you for your generosity and hospitality. See you soon!

 

Best Restaurants in Portland – We check out PDX restaurants with serious Instagram fame

Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez

Lately, my trips have been centered around food, with just a sprinkling of history and city tours. When I traveled before, I’d always search out the best shopping districts, find a cute little pastry shop, and manage to sneak in a massage or a manicure with my travel mates. But these days, it’s all about the food and booze.

When I started planning this trip, the top priority was to seek out and eat at the best restaurants in Portland. I researched on my own, got some tips from friends and screened through pages of Yelp. But this might be the first time that I leveraged Instagram to lead the way.

After just minutes of going down an Instagram black hole, I came across dozens of restaurants that looked absolutely amazing. From waffles and pastries to French food and famous chicken wings, I was salivating and bookmarking everything. And honestly, what better platform to go hunting for food in foreign territory than with Instagram?

Here are some of the restaurants I found using my favorite PDX food hashtags and some other gems we found along the way.

Instagram-Famous Joints You Need to Check Out

Pok Pok

People freak out over Pok Pok and its creative Northern Thai street food fare. I HAD to go to their original location on SE Division St. and try their fish-sauce wings for myself. I was told a number of times to go for lunch as the line can be much more manageable. The second that I step foot inside Pok Pok, I immediately felt like I was back at the food stalls in Jakarta and Bali. Servers are super enthusiastic about all of the menu items and specials and the casual, outdoor vibe might be just what you need after a long day of exploring.

The dishes at Pok Pok Portland are meant to be shared so either come incredibly hungry or with your food adventurous friends. Between the three of us, we ordered a little something of everything.

Pok Pok chicken wings
Always order the wings at Pok Pok.

You MUST order Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. These wings are marinated in fish sauce and sugar before being deep friend and tossed in a caramelized fish sauce and garlic sauce. Great on their own or with a side of coconut rice, these wings are definitely a standout.

We also ordered the Kung Op Wun Sen, a noodle dish with gulf prawns and pork belly baked with soy, ginger, black pepper and other Thai ingredients. The Neua Naam Tok was another favorite. This flank steak “salad” is served up with a bunch of fish sauce, lime, chili powder, cilantro, lemongrass and toasted rice powder. The grilled fiddlehead special of the day was amazing and off the menu. Make sure to ask about the specials of the day as Pok Pok focuses on seasonal dishes whenever possible.

Pine State Biscuits

For whatever reason, soul food is a major player in the Portland food scene. You’ll find chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy and meat and three specialties all across the city. If you have a long day ahead of you and need a serious start to your morning, you must try Pine State Biscuits.

This locally famous joint has four locations across the area and will likely have a line outside the door whenever you go. Trust me when I say this place is worth the wait. Stop by for breakfast or lunch and you’ll be in awe of the biscuits piled high with bacon or fried chicken and a healthy serving of gravy.

Reggie Deluxe from Pine State Biscuits
The Reggie Deluxe…I can’t even.

The Reggie Deluxe seems to be everyone’s favorite with fried chicken, bacon, cheese, egg and gravy. Adventurous diners will love the Pine State Fried Club, a trio of fried grit cakes each topped with a slab of fried chicken drizzled with spiced honey, pimento cheese, country ham and white cheddar. Check the specials board whenever you arrive and you might find some fancy waffles or homemade pop tarts.

Lardo

Lardo's Pork Meatball Bahn Mi
Lardo’s Pork Meatball Bahn Mi. OMG.

Nothing makes me happier than a well-executed, no frills, locally-inspired sandwich place. I found out about Lardo during one of my late night Instagram black hole benders and I’m so happy I did. If you don’t order something porky at Lardo, you’ll still find something on the menu to dream about weeks after you leave PDX. The restaurant’s showstopper is the Pork Meatball Banh Mi and it’s f*cking unbelievable. Giant pork meatballs are stacked with pickled vegetables, cilantro, cucumber and sriracha mayo on a fresh baguette.

I had to show some form of restraint and ordered the Lardo Fries which were tossed with fried herbs and parmesan. But the heathen in me was definitely eyeing everyone else’s Dirty Fries, which are topped with pork scraps (!!!) and marinated peppers. Once again, this place is great to go to with friends so order some beers and snag bites from each other’s sandwiches, while you sit outside and watch all of the kooks walk and bike by.

Voodoo Doughnuts vs. Blue Star Donuts

These guys need very minimal introduction. One is known for its colorful and quirky, available-at-all-times-of-day, donuts and the other takes an artisanal and seasonal approach to its flavors.

We stopped by Voodoo Doughnut super late at night and had our pick of freshly fried doughnuts. (Go for the Portland Cream doughnut!) This place is a hot tourist destination so don’t get trapped in a humongous line at peak times.

Blue Star Donuts
Just a small sampling of flavors at Blue Star Donuts.

Blue Star Donuts uses local and seasonal ingredients in their brioche-based donuts. I brought home all kinds of flavors ranging from Blueberry Bourbon Basil to Lemon Poppy Seed. It’s nearly impossible to buy just one of these bad boys unless you give zero f*cks about your waistline.

Salt & Straw

I’m pretty sure Portlanders, Portlandia-folk?, have made it their goal to keep the secret that Portland actually gets really amazing weather in spring and early summer. We visited in March and it must have been 75 degrees outside. So it’s no surprise that fancy ice cream is a thing in PDX and that there was a huge line nearly every hour and day at Salt & Straw.

Salt and Straw's ice cream flight
Salt and Straw’s ice cream flight

In proper form of a sweet tooth addict, we went for an ice cream flight so we could try a little bit of everything. The Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper flavors was one of my faves, as well as the Honey Lavender and Pear & Blue Cheese. It’s pretty easy to see that Salt & Straw is known for its unconventional flavors. Make sure you ask about all of their seasonal flavors as they are plentiful.

Amazing Portland Restaurants and Eateries We Found Along the Way

Huber’s Café

Huber's Cafe Portland
Coffee and a show at Huber’s Cafe

I was directed by a number of friends and strangers that a Spanish Coffee at Huber’s Café is a must. The place is cozy and intimate, but you can also belly up the bar at chat it up with bartenders, locals and passersby.

Don’t ask any questions; just go directly to Huber’s at any time of day or night. These things are seriously strong so you’ve been warned.

Bollywood Theater

We stumbled on Bollywood Theater after killing sometime in the Alberta Arts District and I’m so glad we did. The appeal behind Bollywood Theater is the fact that Bollywood videos are projected on the restaurant’s beautiful wooden walls and that everything is served on authentic Indian dishes and cups. But the street food dishes and small plates are what really lures people in and to visit again.

The Kati Roll at the beautifully designed Bollywood Theate
The Kati Roll at the beautifully designed Bollywood Theater.

The Kati Roll was such a good afternoon snack. Inspired by Indian street food stalls, the Kati Roll is a piece of flatbread with egg, your choice of meat, pickled onion and green chutney. The Lamb Samosas were another favorite and were filled with lamb, spiced potatoes, mint, onion, ginger and peas. Do yourself a favor and order an extra side of Tomato Raisin Chutney; you’re going to love it.

The Screen Door

If you’re looking for down-home Southern food in a hip atmosphere, The Screen Door is where you need to be. I heard about this place a while ago, looked for  their social media presence, and found out that these guys seems to be doing it old school via word-of-mouth marketing. The restaurant is nestled on a quaint part of East Burnside, but rest assured that the crazy lines will lead you the way to their front door.

You’ll find a little of everything on the menu. People seemed to love the Fried Chicken and Waffle stack and Po’Boys. We ordered essentially everything. but you MUST order a side of the Screen Door Praline Bacon, which is coated with pecans and cayenne brown sugar. I seriously could have just eaten that for breakfast. We ordered items like Shrimp & Grits, Huevos Rancheros and Eggs Benedict and they were all amazing. The brunch cocktails here are money so when in doubt, order a couple rounds of The Ramos Gin Fizz. Who knew gin, cream, egg whites, citrus and orange flower water could be so delicious?

When You Want to Try it All in a Single Day

My man and I had the absolute pleasure of going on the Best of Portland Food Tour with Eat Adventures Food Tours. Co-owner Angie Johnson graciously allowed us to join a trip and she somehow managed to show us a glimpse of nearly every type of PDX cuisine in a single afternoon. This tour is perfect if you’re not in town too long but still want a slice of everything.

You might think that Portland is just about their food carts and craft breweries, but there are so many things happening in between. In a matter of just three hours, we visited five different spots. Our marathon of eating and drinking began with appetizers at Southpark Seafood as we got to nibble on a board of house-made smoked fish, crackers and mortadella.

Enso Urban Winery Portland
Enso is absolutely adorable outside and is a perfect spot for wine tasting.

Other stops along the way included Ecliptic Brewing for some locally-made brews and delicious bar bites; an urban winery called Enso for AMAZING Rosé and some of the best bread and olive oil I’ve ever nibbled on; the Hapa PDX Ramen food cart on SE Division, which is also home to a handful of other adorable and delicious carts; and Ruby Jewel for some delicious ice cream sandwiches.

Hapa Ramen in Portland
Hapa Ramen in Portland
Ecliptic Brewery bites
Portland Breweries are plentiful and offer some amazing, non-conventional bar snacks. Order a few things from Ecliptic and you’ll be set.

The Best of Portland Food Tour is a fantastic way to learn about the history of Portland and how chefs and food trends have shaped the area to what it is today. Take this trip at the beginning of your stay as you’ll travel through several different parts of Portland with Eat Adventures. If you want to eat off of the beaten path and be among locals, book a tour with these guys immediately. You’ll be in good hands and with good company and Angie will definitely take care of you and your appetite.

 

 

 

Red Eyed Tree Frog

Things to do in Costa Rica – An Adrenaline Junkie’s Oasis

Written by and photos by Michael A.

COSTA RICA, COSTA RICA, COSTA RICA! As you can tell, I’m just a tad bit fond of my recent adventure in this beautiful country that really has everything for all types of travelers. I’d love to write a book on all you can do in this small country, but I’m going to try to keep it as brief as possible and let the pictures do the talking as words just won’t do this place justice. If you’re looking for things to do in Costa Rica, let this be your guide.

For those tired of exploring cities, Costa Rica really has it all for you. Just to name a few things before I get into my recommendations, Costa Rican highlights include: volcanoes, natural hot springs, beautiful beaches, rain forests, jungles, some of the most diverse wildlife of any country, all classes of whitewater rafting, zip lining, canyoning, rappelling, waterfall jumping, surfing, scuba diving, big game fishing, massages to knock your underwear off, and most importantly AMAZING customer service and knowledgeable guides.

I’d love to go on and on about how great the country is, but I really want to focus this article on a few companies that you absolutely must use when traveling to Costa Rica, or at least still searching for things to do in Costa Rica. I assume that you’re all smart people and have already decided that Costa Rica is the perfect vacation so I’m going to just tell you what you should do there. The customer support and service at all these below mentioned places are truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and that’s what really sets Costa Rica apart from the other 40 something countries I’ve traveled to. All of these guides or owners never seemed to be catering to its guests because it was part of business. Rather, it seemed as though each company really enjoyed its guest and was legitimately having a great time with each of us. I really recommend all these companies below!

Where to Stay Near Arenal Volcano – Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel


Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel Bedroom
Spacious rooms with very fine wood giving the room a very earthly feel.
Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel bathroom
Spacious bathrooms with large windows to keep you constantly surrounded by nature.
Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel Patio
Spacious patio to lounge on in the middle of the rainforest.
Private hotel homes
Private hotel homes
Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel Pool
The beautiful pool right next to the restaurant/bar
Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel is truly a unique stay and a vacation within a vacation in its own right. Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel is smack dab right in the middle of the rainforest while still relatively close to La Fortuna (the very touristy town next to the Arenal volcano). Personally, I couldn’t imagine staying in La Fortuna as I just didn’t find it very nice because it’s really just a place for excursion companies to operate. Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel is just a 25 minute drive away which allows you to really experience the rainforest of Costa Rica while still having access to all of the fun excursions that Costa Rica has to offer.

The rooms are beautifully kept and are built out of very high quality wood. Furthermore, as you can see in the picture above, each room comes with a beautiful patio with furniture and a table so that you can relax in the morning as the rain comes down or watch a sunset while listening to the hundreds of different species chirp. The rooms are very modern yet they still do a great job in keeping its natural feel of being in the middle of the rain forest.

The landscape of this property is absolutely stunning. This hotel owns a lot of the land and they have trails on their property, which are perfect for horseback riding, night tours, bird watching, day hikes and more (all of which you can purchase for a very affordable price through the hotel). You really don’t have any reason to leave the property between your beautiful room, gorgeous landscape, pool, wildlife, and a good restaurant all on premises.

The rooms are beautiful and the landscape is unreal, but my favorite part of my stay was getting to talk to one of the owners and hearing about how this is a hotel for the community. More times than not, business is all about money and getting the most out of each visitor. Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel has done something extremely unique in this aspect which really makes this place extra special and gives it a very real Costa Rican vibe. These owners want to make sure that each of their guests really gets a true Costa Rican experience while still making sure to not turn the area into another resort where Americans visit and wipe out the culture to the point where you don’t even realize that you’re in a foreign country anymore. Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel is a very self-sufficient hotel where they grow a lot of their crops, recycle (obviously), and hire only those from the local town to ensure that this property remains not only a profitable business, but also a major contributor to the lives of the locals. You’ll see brothers and sisters working together or a uncle and nephew and so forth. I thought this was something truly special as you don’t have this authenticity elsewhere in Costa Rica.

Bottom line: Do yourself a favor and spend at least a few days here so that you can really enjoy Costa Rica for what it is and not just stay in the tourist trap of La Fortuna.

TripAdvisor rating: 4/5
TripAdvisor link

Arenal Combo Volcano Hike with Red Lava Tourist Service Center

Arenal Volcano
View of the famous Arenal Volcano at the start of the tour
They allow you to take a dip halfway through at this waterfall
Take a dip halfway through the tour at this waterfall

 

Natural hot springs
Nightcaps and mud facials in the natural hot springs.

The guides at Red Lava Tourist Service Center are knowledgeable and friendly! GREAT customer service! They have amazing reviews all over TripAdvisor for a very good reason. The company’s big seller is the Combo 2 Volcano Hike which I strongly recommend. I unfortunately only was able to do the second tour but it was still a great treat. The combo hike compared to the one I did are pretty different from one another. During the Combo hike, the morning hike is a bit rigorous as you climb the Chato Volcano, which is right next to the Arenal volcano. Make sure you bring solid hiking shoes; anyone in decent shape shouldn’t have any issues with the hike. I opted for the second hike as it’s much more leisurely. You could probably get away with wearing tennis shoes as there isn’t really any climbing. Your guide will take you to beautiful locations where you’ll have stunning views of the Arenal volcano. You’ll also visit a beautiful waterfall and end the day with shots in natural hot spring. The nature aspect of this trip is obviously stunning. However, the most impressive part of the hike was all of the knowledge our guide provided. We weren’t just walking from location to location. Every so often, our guide gave us facts about the plant life or a beautiful bird call we heard echoing throughout the rain forest. He made the trip very educational and fascinating. I couldn’t have been more pleased with this hike.

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5
TripAdvisor link

Rappelling and Whitewater rafting with Pure Trek Canyoning

 

175ft waterfall rappel
First Rappel of the day; 175ft down a waterfall
waterfall rappel
Rappelling through waterfalls

PIC (82)

Oh boy! If you want adrenaline, look no further. Start your morning off with a 185ft rappel down a gorgeous waterfall with Pure Trek Canyoning. Not your cup of tea? Well, I didn’t think it would be mine either since I’m kind of afraid of heights and I’ve never rappelled before. Somehow though, these great guides wiped away all my fear and got me to go through with the tour.

Although this trip is great for those seeking thrills, this actually turned into a big growing experience for many of us on this tour. These guides face customers with my similar fears on a regular basis. They are nice and friendly and really help you believe in yourself to overcome fears. Before you know it, you’re rappelling down 100ft waterfalls like it’s absolutely nothing. I think we went down a total of around nine amazingly beautiful waterfalls. Also, there is a zip line/monkey drop where you essentially zip line about 50 ft. At that point they stop you and then you just drop another 50 ft or so right before the stop you a few feet above the ground from your free fall. SO MUCH FUN!

Although the guides were having a great time with us, we constantly felt safe in their hands.

Whitewater Rafting the Balsa River (Class 2 and 3)

Constant rapids throughout the 2-3 river ride.
Constant rapids throughout the 2-3 river ride.

Once the rappelling in the rain forest wrapped up, Pure Trek Canyoning then took us to the Balsa River where we went whitewater rafting. Much like the rappelling, I didn’t really have much experience with this extreme sport. Once again though, I felt perfectly safe. They made sure to keep the guides/customer ratio very good at around one guide for every four people. Although I thought a Class 3 was going to be a bit easy, these rapids actually turned out to be a lot more fun, adventurous, and continuous than the Class 5 that I did previously.

At this point in the day, we were all pretty hungry as we’d been moving around since around 8 a.m. This tour thankfully comes with lunch. This was no ham and cheese sandwich type of lunch though. They took us to a restaurant where we had an authentic Costa Rican meal and even got to try freshly brewed Costa Rican coffee. Once we finished eating, they showed us how sugar is produced from sugar cane. This trip was much more than just an adrenaline rush, but was also an educational trip leaving us a bit more knowledgeable and cultured about the country.

typical Costa Rican food
An authentic Costa Rican meal

TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
TripAdvisor link

 

Night Jungle Tour with Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge and Wildlife Refuge

 

Red Eyed Tree Frog
Red Eyed Tree Frog
Red Eyed Tree Frog
Red Eyed Tree Frog
There's a SNAKE in my boot!!
There’s a SNAKE in my boot!!

DSCN5886

DSCN5880

Tarantula Tarantula
Tarantula

I strongly advise going on a night jungle tour with Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge and Wildlife Refuge as the jungle really awakens with some amazing creatures at night. This is pretty much a real life Planet Earth experience. As night became dark, we were led through the jungle with nothing but our flashlights. Our guide Issac was extremely knowledgeable and seemed to know just an unfathomable amount of information about each insect, reptile, amphibian or plant. He also taught us about their calls, behavior, and why certain traits evolved the way they did. The tour was around two hours and we saw a ton of wildlife, including poisonous snakes, Banana spiders, and the only Red Eye Tree Frog that I saw my whole time in Costa Rica. I told Issac how important it was to me find one of these and he was thankfully able to come through. This was a surreal experience and a true bargain. Make sure you do at least one night jungle hike while in the area.

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5
TripAdvisor link

Desafio Gravity Falls

rapelling in Costa Rica
Literally stepping off of a cliff
One of your rappels
One of your rappels
canyoning
Canyoning through the beautiful Costa Rican Rainforest

I think we all grew up with the love of jumping in rivers off of rocks or swinging into lakes by a rope. Well, this takes those loves to the next level with Costa Rica’s newest extreme excursion which combines waterfall free jumping and some rappelling. You must be in at least decent shape for this one and love a good rush! This was definitely the excursion that I was worried about the most during my time in Costa Rica. Rappelling down 150ft waterfalls and jumping without ropes over waterfalls 30ft down can easily make your skin chill. However, Desafio makes you feel extremely safe as they take you through beautiful canyons deep in the rainforest. They had three guides for the four of us on the tour so that we each had individual attention throughout each jump and rappel. They really emphasized safety with every single jump. Plus, this company had a professional camera that was able to take some amazing photos of you in action as you conquered your fears. They also took us out to a very nice lunch once our goosebumps finally settled.

Desafio Cooking Class

homemade tortillas
Making tortillas from scratch
Most of the food that you cook with is all organic grown on their land
Most of the food that you cook with is all organic grown on their land
A typical Costa Rican meal
A typical Costa Rican meal

Although Desafio definitely prides itself on being extreme and for adrenaline junkies, they also cater to those that want to get a little more sophistication and culture out of their Costa Rican experience. For a rather small fee, they take you up to the mountains to a restaurant where 80 percent of the food is grown on that property. They walk you around and show you all the plants to give you a better understanding of spices and medicines in their natural state. Once our small group finished walking around, we headed to the kitchen where we had two Costa Rican ladies help prepare a traditional  meal. By far the coolest part of this excursion was learning how to make tortillas from scratch. Culture is often deeply rooted in food and this was a very cool experience.

TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
TripAdvisor link

Manuel Tour of Manuel Antonio National park

Concerned monkey
Concerned monkey
Howler Monkey
Howler Monkey

 

I'm going to steal your Taco Bell
I’m going to steal your Taco Bell

Photo 10-2-16 8 52 02 a.m.

 

I'm a proud iguana
I’m a proud iguana

Let me first start off by saying, Manuel is the man! I wouldn’t be surprised if the city of Manuel Antonio were named after him ;). Manuel runs his own operation, Manuel’s Tours, and he usually keeps his tour groups very small. He is unbelievably knowledgeable and very well respected amongst all of the guides of Manuel Antonio. When you hire Manuel to guide you through the national park, you actually hire 100 guides as all guides help one another out to make sure that their customers can see as much wildlife as possible and boy did we!

I’ve never spent money on a guide when going through a national park as I just didn’t think it was ever worth it. After trekking with Manuel, please take my advice and hire this man. Otherwise you are completely throwing away your $16 entrance fee down the drain. The animals in this national park are obviously hard to see as animals should be. Manuel let us look through his spotter scope, which made finding all of these animals crystal clear even when far away. Manuel was an absolute godsend and I can’t imagine my time in the forest would be as great had he not been our guide. There is so much more to see than just monkeys, but you won’t see it unless you have a guide like Manuel with a trained eye and his spotter scope.

Manuel’s Night Jungle Tour

A beautiful butterfly
A beautiful butterfly
Ribbbbet anyone?
Ribbbbet anyone?
scorpion-spider
Your worst nightmare; a scorpion-spider
nighttime crawlers - a scorpion
nighttime crawlers – a scorpion
The Fearless MANuel taming the deadliest snake in Costa Rica
The Fearless MANuel taming the deadliest snake in Costa Rica
The deadliest snake in Costa Rica
The deadliest snake in Costa Rica

Once again, let me start off by saying, MANUEL IS THE MAN!! Did I mention that he fought off Costa Rica’s most dangerous snake right in front of me? Yeah, that happened. As with the day tour, it was an incredibly small group (me and one other person) so he was able to answer all of our questions and taught us a lot about the evolution of the landscape and life within it. He taught us some neat tricks on how to spot these creatures in the middle of the night. Among other things, we saw snakes, toads, scorpions, and the hideous scorpion spider. Manuel is truly a good man that cares deeply about his guests having a great time and you will when learning all of the cool facts that he has to offer.

TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
TripAdvisor link

ADR Adventure Park

waterfall zip-lining
Zip-lining through a waterfall. Yeh, that’s pretty damn cool
Rapeling through the rainforest
Rappelling through the rain forest

Eight extreme activities all wrapped up into one excursion! Although the name is a bit confusing, this is NOT a park. The guides at ADR Adventure Park took us into the middle of the jungle for the activities. This is a great value for the amount of different things you get to try, like zip lining through a waterfall (Yes, you read that correctly!). There is quite a bit of zip lining in this excursion which is one of Costa Rica’s main attraction. So, if you’re looking to do some zip lining which I’m sure 90% of you are, then take this tour. You get a taste of a lot of different activities such as a high rope swing, rappelling, a good amount of hiking, a waterfall jump, and more all included in one. The location is absolutely stunning and the photographer they bring is amazing! I had to buy these pictures as these action shots were just so unreal.

TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
TripAdvisor link

Surfing in Manuel Antonio with Coconut Surf and Skate

Your Surf scene
Your surf scene
surfing in costa rica
Costa Rica Surfin’

Surfing is big in Costa Rica. Although Jaco and Dominical are supposed to be pretty big surf spots, the town of Manuel Antonio has so much more to offer than these other towns.  Shoot Coconut Surf and Skate an email as his surf setup is right outside Manuel Antonio National park on the free public beach. If you’re driving toward the National Park from Quepos, it’s one of the first parking lots to the right you can enter and you’ll see him right there. He both rents out his boards and gives three hour surf lessons that I was told were pretty good by others. So, make sure to send him an email to get his prices and scheduling.

H2O Adventures (Class 5 Whitewater Rafting EL CHORRO)

With good reason, I was definitely nervous about this Class 5 rafting trip with H20 Adventures since I’ve only been rafting twice and the highest class I’ve ever done was a 3. It’s important to know how the classifications work though so you have an idea of what to expect. Class 5 doesn’t necessarily mean that the Rapids are 10 times tougher than a Class 2 or 3 would be. In fact, the Class 3 might even be tougher. Rather, a very important factor in determining classification is based on the danger level and the magnitude of how badly someone could get hurt. Once again though, this company really emphasizes safety (of course after making you sign your life away via a waiver!). We had a 3:1 rider to guide ratio, which was perfect not only for getting down the river, but also learning logistics on the strategy of taming the beast. We saw a couple of wipeouts as some of these rapids get pretty intense as you drop 8-10 ft followed by hard rights and left turns to avoid slamming into boulders. I felt completely safe the entire time (that could also be because I had a secret plan to ride the body of any of my boat members in case we tipped). This company also had a professional photographer with us.

TripAdvisor rating: 5/5

TripAdvisor link

As I’m sure you figured by now, I was a bit worried about many of these excursions due to my lack of experience and fear of heights. But, that’s what’s so great about Costa Rica; it’s a place far enough from home where you can be whatever you want to be, conquer your fears, get a rush like never before, and really grow as a person. If these words and glowing recommendations on things to do in Costa Rica haven’t convinced you to book a flight to Costa Rica immediately, I sure hope the pictures get you there because this is one special place.