Sunday, March 28, 2010

Easter in Costa Rica....Religious Parades, Beach Escapes & the Famous Miel de Chiverre!

Easter Week, or Semana Santa, is easily one of the most important weeks of the year for Costa Ricans. Full of important religious ceremonies celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this predominantly Catholic country finds most locals spending this week with family in prayer, heading out to the beach areas for a short vacation, or more commonly a combination of both. Traffic can be horrendous, in part because on Good Friday public bus routes shut down completely to allow employees time to celebrate the holiday with their own families. Public transportation options become limited and can be extremely crowded and inconvenient during this holiday.

In most areas of Costa Rica, the local Catholic Church organizes traditional masses, as well as daily religious processions or celebratory parades generally starting on Holy Wednesday, and continuing through Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Sometimes these ceremonies start as early as Monday, continuing through the entire week. Usually consisting of dramatic reenactments of Jesus’ journey through Jerusalem to his crucifixion and resurrection, with fake blood in place, some of the graphic depictions are not always pleasurable for the faint of heart.

Actors, dressed as Roman soldiers, take part with a host of other easily recognized characters in the journey towards Jesus’ eventual death. Most commonly spotted in these processions or local parades are Angels, Mary Magdalene, Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Apostles and naturally, Jesus, the most coveted dramatic role of all. Participants proclaim to have lived the last year free of sin, while following closely the church’s teachings, though this point could be argued in many a town. Nonetheless, considered a very serious event, large numbers of spectators line the streets to mourn, pray and celebrate.

Traditionally during Holy Week, practicing Catholics prepare special dishes centering around the main ingredient, Seafood. Keeping in line with the observance of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent, delicious typical Costa Rican dishes are shared, such as rice and shrimp, fish ceviche, fried whole fish, canned tuna, as well as a variety of local desserts such as empanadas, rice pudding, rosquillas (donuts), polvorones (cookies), eggnog, Chicha (a hot drink made from aguadulce, ginger and cinnamon), and a popular jelly made from “chiverre”, a large squash similar to a watermelon. (See recipe below.)

Catholics are given all of Lent to attend Confession, while church hours are expanded to accommodate higher numbers arriving to confess before Easter, since the sacrament is not available Thursday through Sunday. The extended hours also allow further preparation for the processions including decorating and cleaning the religious effigies, many of which will take part in up to 10 processions, requiring different colored clothing for each one.

Tourists visiting Costa Rica, or “Ticos” not attending religious ceremonies with family, all head for the beach, converting sleepy beach towns into overcrowded party zones, while hotels in both small towns and tourist hubs throughout the country are in normal years completely booked months in advance. Travelers on roads leading to and from the coastal towns can sit in traffic for hours. San Jose and other Metropolitan Areas become literally deserted ghost towns as all government institutions, schools and banks close from Thursday to Sunday, or as is the case this year, many are closing from Sunday to Sunday.

In recent years, the common practice of enforcing the “Dry Law” during Holy Week has become a bit more relaxed, with enforcement by police officials sporatic and unorganized, especially in high tourist zones. The Dry Law specifies that as of midnight on Wednesday, all bars, restaurants and liquor stores close, and no alchohol can be served or sold until Saturday. According to Catholic tradition, followers are to refrain from drinking alchoholic beverages during the mourning of Jesus Christ, until his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Even though the majority of the Costa Rican population is Catholic, many citizens stock up on liquor and beer to take them through the festive week, while other entrepreneurial spirits make a side business of selling beer and liquor out the back door or even the trunk of their car during those dates.

Though many a devoted churchgoer may still choose to indulge in a drink or two, superstitions abound, and Ticos are known to keep an eye over their shoulder during this time. Many won’t swim in the ocean on Holy Thursday or Friday, fearing they will drown because God is angry. Others believe you can turn into a fish if you get in the water on Holy Friday. Another common superstition is the thought that the earth gets hotter, causing more earthquakes during this time. Surprisingly, this has been fairly true this year, but is more likely just a coincidence. An older superstition states that it is a sin to drive a car during Holy Week, and some small towns are said to still throw nails on the street to deter anyone who would consider the sin of driving during these dates. I thankfully have personally never seen this done in my 20 years of living in Costa Rica.

In one particular town, Ortega de Santa Cruz in Guanacaste, men continue to participate in an age old tradition that involves capturing a large crocodile with their bare hands on Good Friday and tying it up to put on display in the center of town. Even though the animal is released the following day, the tradition has been under scrutiny of animal and environmental conservationists for years and each year is said to be the last. Unfortunately, it has also grown in popularity as many curiosity seekers head to the small town to witness the exhibition in person.

On the positive side, it is widely agreed upon that some of the best weather and certainly some of the best sunsets of the year happen during Holy Week, another excellent reason to be at the beach. So should you find yourself in Costa Rica during this holiday week, feel free to come join in the festivities and be sure to try the Chiverre Jelly listed below!!

Miel de Chiverre
Large chiverre
Dulce de caña in (2) tapas or 1 kilo of granular brown sugar
250 grams brown tamarindo seeds (Optional)
250 grams of coconut pieces or flakes (Optional)
(Tapas of dulce de caña are the little circular blocks of brown sugar available at every Costa Rican market.)
Over a fire or using a kitchen burner, char as much as possible of the shell of the chiverre.
When done, hit the shell firmly with a hammer to expose the contents which looks like spaghetti squash or fine hairs.
Put the insides in a clean pillowcase and use the clothes drier to reduce the moisture.
When the chiverre contents are drier, cook it in a big sturdy pot over low heat. Cover the entire flesh of the chiverre with whichever sugar you are using, white, brown or the tapa. Sprinkle with the tamarindo seeds, cinnamon, cloves, lemon or orange peel and if desired, the coconut. The chiverre will naturally produce enough liquid to complete this process.
Cover the pot and let it cook slowly over low heat for 90 minutes, stirring often to avoid sticking.
Allow to cool and either transfer to a jar or use for other dishes.
The jelly is widely used in dessert empanadas, cookies and other dishes where a touch of sweetness is desired.

Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

This Costa Rican Rodent is no Rat!

A popular Costa Rican jungle inhabitant commonly found around Manuel Antonio, as well as within the grounds of Hotel Makanda by the Sea, is the Agouti. A member of the rodent species, they are similar to a large guinea pig with longer legs, and happily a distinctive short hairless tail, as opposed to the rat tail found in many rodent species. The Agouti varies in color from a grey tinged dark beige, to a rich dark brown, with the undersides being lighter colored or almost grey. Their body consists of coarse hair, which raises when the animals are alarmed, making this rodent look larger in size. The average length is around 20 inches, with a top weight of 18 pounds.

Agoutis are cute little mammals with a bunny-like twitching nose, five front and three hind toes; and a lead toe being very small. The hairless tail is very short or non-existent. The molar teeth consist of cylindrical crowns, effective for foraging on fruits and nuts. They are rumored to be the only species that can open Brazil nuts without tools, courtesy of their strong jaw and exceptionally sharp teeth.

Forgetful little fellows, the Agoutis are known as "scatter hoarders", burying the seeds they hoard throughout the forest, but often times forgetting where they have stored all of their food. These often times forgotten fruits and nuts then germinate, growing into healthy adult plants and trees dispersing new plant species throughout the rainforest.

Loving little rodents, Agoutis usually form a strong pair bond of one male and one female, with the bond lasting their lifetime. Together they will defend a territory of up to 2 hectares. Communicating extensively through odor signals, they mark their trails, feeding and sleeping areas by dragging their anal scent glands across the marking areas or across objects. Should an intruder invade this territory, Agoutis will make a warning call similar to that of a barking dog, or when pushed, they may actually attack the intruder.

Agoutis breed throughout the year. When courting, the male Agouti showers his mate with urine, exciting her into a "courtship dance", after which she allows the male to approach. Approximately 3 months later, the female Agouti will give birth to a litter of 1-3 offspring in a soft bed of twigs, fur and leaves. The baby, which is born incredibly developed, is then raised alone in a small burrow, the opening being smaller than the mother, which protects the tiny animal from predators. At least twice a day, the mother will call the baby out of its protective burrow using a low growling dog-like bark in order to nurse her young.

Agoutis are generally found in forest and wooded areas throughout Central and South America, and can commonly be spotted while visiting local Costa Rica hotels. They conceal themselves at night in hollow tree-trunks or burrows among roots to hide and protect themselves. Active animals, they are suprisingly graceful in movement, and general move in a gentle trot, turning in to a series of deer-like springing jumps when startled. Agoutis take readily to water, swimming quite well, and when feeding, they prop up, sitting on their hind legs and holding the food between their small forepaws.

These likeable little creatures are said to live as long as 20 years, an incredibly long time for a member of the rodent species. Although well camoflauged, they will often times stop to allow visitors the perfect photo opportunity. So on your next visit to Costa Rica, keep an eye peeled and your camera ready, as you could happen upon a wonderful little rodent, one that I am happy to say is not a RAT!

Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.