Delivering Supplies to a Little School in the Jungle

We will carry this in our hearts forever…

The Anita School was built specifically for the children of immigrant workers on one of the sprawling palm plantations in the Quepos area of Costa Rica.

Driving several miles down a dusty dirt road through the dense rows of palms, we reached a one-room schoolhouse… CONTINUE READING >>

With Back to School time upon us, we thought we’d offer this flashback story containing ideas for providing school supplies to kids all over the world who may not otherwise have the tools they need to get an education.

Delivering school supplies in Costa Rica with Pack for a Purpose

During our stay at the Parador Resort in Costa Rica, we learned a great deal about their commitment to the surrounding area, not only environmentally but also as a member of their community.

In addition to being a leader in sustainable tourism, they are involved in several civic projects.

What we're giving through Pack for a Purpose

We discovered one of them, Pack For a Purpose, from the Parador website as we were preparing for our visit.

In a simple and effective way to lend a helping hand to schools, Pack For a Purpose asks that travelers make room in their luggage for needed supplies.

We were moved by the idea and happily stuffed pencils, pens, protractors, and other items listed on their website into our bags. click here to see more about Pack For a Purpose

Anita Primary School near Quepos, Costa Rica
The one-room schoolhouse we visited.

Upon our arrival at Parador we met one of the managers, Moises, who has taken a special interest in the program.

He offered to take us to Anita Primary School, one of the four schools they help out, for a firsthand look at the effect the program can have. We were honored to accept his offer.

Housing at the Palma Tica Plantation near Quepos, Costa Rica
Housing at a palm plantation

In Costa Rica, government education is well-funded, compulsory, free to all citizens, and highly regarded, but there are schools that are not a part that system.

The Anita School was built specifically for the children of immigrant workers on one of the sprawling palm plantations in the Quepos area.

A child does her schoolwork at a palm plantation school in Costa Rica

There is an interesting history to these schools, and the little villages that are home to them.

Early in the last century, the United Fruit Company set up shop in Costa Rica to grow bananas.

At the time, there was little-to-no infrastructure in the area, so everything had to be built from scratch – roads, bridges, trains and ports for shipping, and housing for workers. The housing consisted of little villages, each with a church, a pulpería (a small store with a little of everything), and a school – all surrounding a soccer field.

 

In the 1940s blight hit the bananas, so the company decided to plant African oil palms instead. The trees thrived, saving the plantations and these villages.

The new owner of the palm plantations, Palma Tica, continues to offer basic first-through-sixth grade education to the children of the workers. But, truth be told, these are spartan accommodations at best. Isolated and showing their age, these communities get by on the bare minimum, and the schools are no exception.

Palm plantation harvesters carry their poles and sharp scythes on bikes
Palm plantation harvesters carry their poles and sharp scythes on bicycles.

Palm plantation harvesters carry their poles and sharp scythes on bikes

Carts pulled by buffalo are used to transport palm oil fruit in Costa Rica
Carts are used to transport palm oil fruit Photo credit: Alejandro Marten

Mostly migrant workers from Nicaragua fill the difficult, low-wage jobs.

These jobs include cutting large clumps of dates from the extremely tall tree tops and hauling them off to the plant to be refined.

While the conditions may be better than what was left behind in Nicaragua, they are far from ideal.

We will carry this in our hearts forever…

Delivering school supplies in Costa Rica with Pack for a Purpose

Driving several miles down a dusty dirt road through the dense rows of palms, we reached a one-room schoolhouse.

Professor Marino welcomed us, gave us a brief overview of the little school and introduced us to his pupils.

Delivering school supplies in Costa Rica with Pack for a Purpose

He has been teaching at Anita School for twelve years and, though many of the students are only here briefly, Professor Marino can take pride that he has watched several go on to university with scholarships.

Math class was in session and, like the old frontier one-room schoolhouses, all grades are taught simultaneously with each child at their own grade level.

Delivering school supplies in Costa Rica with Pack for a Purpose

The folks at Parador had combined the contributions from many guests to make bags for each of the children, and their eyes really lit up as they dug in.

Like kids with Halloween goody bags, they dumped the contents out on their desks and excitedly examined their haul.

By far, the most popular item in each bag was the colorful soft rubber, solar-powered calculator that we’re sad to say we didn’t contribute.

Whoever packed the calculators in their suitcases brought real joy to this group of children – we wish you could have been there to see their happy faces.

Delivering school supplies in Costa Rica with Pack for a Purpose

Though the excited students no doubt enjoyed the distraction from their math duties (as any kid would – ugh math), we knew we needed to move on and allow their routine to resume so we reluctantly said our good-byes, thanked Professor Marino, and stepped outside.

The playground at a palm plantation school in Costa Rica

Moises explained to us that the commitment from Parador goes beyond school supplies.

Staff from the resort also perform routine maintenance, painting and fixing up as needed, and even built the children a playground. While he elaborated, it was plain to see his pride in this little school.

Most deservedly so, job well done.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A HUGE gracias to Parador Resort and Spa for setting up our visit! As always, all opinions are our own.

DELVE DEEPER:
See more about Pack For a Purpose
See more about Parador Resort and Spa

See all of our adventures in Costa Rica!

Traveling Low To The Ground

 Traveling low to the ground is our style of getting around. We’re not big on throwing money into all inclusive resorts, hate being told what to do and enjoy meeting the “real people” at our chosen destinations. It’s all about discovering things for ourselves and jumping into the culture at hand. No set plans…
CONTINUE READING >>


Traveling Low to the Ground!

Traveling low to the ground is our style of getting around. We’re not big on throwing money into all inclusive resorts, hate being told what to do and enjoy meeting the “real people” at our chosen destinations.

It’s all about discovering things for ourselves and jumping into the culture at hand. No set plans.

It also costs a lot less, and we’re all about saving money where ever we can. Every little bit helps add to what we have to spend on our adventures.

We love to be afoot, seeing everything from ground level. You’d be surprised at how much you miss whizzing by at 60 miles an hour (though we have found that the best way to find out about a place is from a good taxi driver–the true ambassadors of the world–and the snarkier they are the more we love ’em!).

Street food, weird shop owners and cheesy tourist diversions are all more enjoyable when you discover them for yourself. We’d have a lot less to write about if we woke up in a gated resort with nothing more to think about than the planned menu and whether we’re going to play golf or join twenty other tourists on a day trip.

We’ve learned the “international sign language” that gets us through much of the tasks at hand. This sometimes involves some innovative on-the-fly signing.

Imaging poor David in the Italian pharmacy trying to get the point across to the stunned man behind the counter that his lovely wife is all clogged up and in the need of an enema. Hilarious fun. Or the night in a bar in Spain “discussing” American politics via cocktail napkins and crazy arm flapping. What great memories (really!).

Sometimes renting a car and pointing it in a general direction is a great way to go.

We spent a week in France in some wonderful places we would have never found in a guidebook, stayed in a room in a Medieval castle, watched pastry eating “tough guys” in Bordeaux and ordered the special at a cafe in a quaint little seaside town.

Our waiter at the cafe actually went to his home and returned with an encyclopedia to show us a picture of a ray so we would know what it was we were eating. Who says the French are unfriendly?

Our goal as Gypsy Nesters is to try new things, see as much of the world as possible, taking the time needed to truly fall in love with a place, gathering out-of-the-box memories as we go.

For us, this can only be accomplished low to the ground.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

This post contains sponsored links.

Seeking Stonehenge Somewhere in Time

The famous ring of rocks has eluded me ever since I realized that I had missed an easy opportunity to see it on a visit to London back in 1987.

From that moment on I was motivated to make it to the mythical monument… CONTINUE READING >> 

The famous ring of rocks has eluded me ever since I realized that I had missed an easy opportunity to see it on a visit to London back in 1987.

I could have just hopped on a bus for the short ride out to the mysterious site but didn’t know it at the time.

Not long after that I discovered the cult classic movie This Is Spinal Tap and was humorously reminded of my failure every time I saw their heavy metal mystic rock spoof Stonehenge.

From that moment on I was motivated to make it to the mythical monument.

From time to time we would fly through London, only staying long enough to change planes, and I could practically feel the nearby presence taunting me.

Foamhenge

I came close to a viewing a few years ago with a stop in Virginia at Foamhenge, a life-sized replica made of Styrofoam, but as fantastically campy as that was it did not placate my passion for experiencing the real thing.

Finally, on our way to our recent walking tour of Cornwall, I got my chance.

We stopped off in Salisbury for an overnight on the train from London and hopped aboard one of the hourly busses that ferry visitors to and from the archaeological marvel.

Believed to date back to around 3000 BC, the monument has had three major phases. Through the first thousand years or so the construction consisted of earthworks and trenches. This was followed by several hundred years of timber posts being erected within the original circle that had been dug centuries earlier.

Evidence shows that it was around this time that burials began to take place within the circles. However, soon after our visit an ancient burial chamber was unearthed near Stonehenge.

These ancient graves date back over two thousand years before the presumed beginnings the site, adding more questions as to why this place was so significant to the ancient people who built it.

Next, around 2600 BC, the builders began erecting stones. This development only added more mystery to the monument. The blocks are believed to have been brought from some 150 miles away, which took some serious determination.

What could possibly have inspired these ancient builders to drag untold tons of rock from so far away? It certainly made my little quest to see their handiwork seem pretty pitiful in comparison.

It was also during this time that an astronomical aspect of the stone rings was incorporated. The builders carefully aligned gaps between the rocks so that they would line up with sunrise on the summer solstice and sunset on the winter counterpart.

The final phase included the largest stones. This time the blocks were brought in from about 25 miles to the north. They were used to construct the iconic doorway like structures of upright stones topped by lintels, with each piece weighing up to fifty tons.

As enormous as these are, standing up to 30 feet high, I have to say that my first impression upon seeing the monument was that it was somewhat smaller than expected. Perhaps my years of anticipation had instilled a larger than life impression in my imagination.

Aside from that initial reaction, Stonehenge lived up to all the hype I had formed in my mind over the years. So we stood in proper awe wondering just what would possess ancient people to pursue this great undertaking.

Whoever made the monument left no written records; so many aspects of Stonehenge remain a mystery. Over time a number of myths developed surrounding the stones, including one of the most often repeated which is that the Druids were the builders behind the mystical boulder circles.

My favorite fictional band Spinal Tap described them thusly:

“No one knows who they were or what they were doing, but their legacy remains hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.”

The theory arose around 1640 in a study by John Aubrey and hung around for centuries until better dating methods placed the construction long before any Druids danced anywhere near a Stonehenge monument.

But even though we now know who didn’t build it, there have been precious few good theories as to who did, or why.

Has Merlin returned to stand atop the magical stones as a raven?

In the middle ages some thought that the rocks of Stonehenge had healing powers. This myth, called the giant’s dance, had giants bringing the stones from Africa to Ireland, and then on to the plains near Salisbury years later to erect a memorial on the advice of, and with some magic help from, Merlin.

For most of modern times the historic site was held in the hands of various kings, earls, lords, and marquesses. During World War I the surrounding grasslands served as an air base then, soon afterwards it was donated to the government.

For many years visitors were allowed to walk among the stones, and even touch them, but in 1977 the site was roped off, so the best we could do was walk around the perimeter. Considering the crowds, we had no problem with that, happily abiding by the rule for the preservation of the ancient achievement.

More recently a visitor center and small museum have been added, where theories on how the stones may have been moved and how the builders may have lived are recreated in life-sized models. While interesting, these are little more than guesses because any indications of their methods have long since disappeared.

The usual speculation is that ancient people moved large objects by rolling them on logs, which makes good sense, but it is only a best guess.

Inside the center, we browsed through old photos and memorabilia until we stumbled upon a serious collector’s item.

There, standing in a display case, we found a limited edition record of Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge pressed on a picture of the stones. What a way to close out my successful quest to finally see the stones.

On the bus back to Salisbury I had to download the song on my phone.

It seemed only fitting… one might even say like a glove. (No smelling required.)

David, GypsyNester.com

Discover the Desert in El Paso

Nestled between the Rio Grande River and the Franklin Mountains, El Paso is the perfect place to experience the stark beauty of the high Chihuahuan Desert.

CONTINUE READING >> 

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso… 

Not only the opening line of a great song but also the perfect place to experience the stark beauty of the high Chihuahuan Desert.

The city sits nestled between the Rio Grande River and the Franklin Mountains, and any one of the many hotels in El Paso will make an excellent base camp for explorations.

Mountain Majesty


Image via Flickr  by VisitElPaso

With peaks reaching over 7,000 feet high, Franklin Mountains State Park is the place to begin. The entire park is completely contained within the city limits, making this perhaps the most spectacular urban park anywhere.

The views of the city are spectacular along several scenic drives and trails. Or for an even better perspective, the Wyler Aerial Tramway climbs to the summit of Ranger Peak. Three states and two countries are visible from this more-than-a-mile-high perch. But if, like Veronica, the thought of dangling in a gondola riding high above the crests and valleys is too much to take, there is an option to walk up the Ridge Trail.

Best yet, after spending the day hiking, mountain biking, or picnicking in this alpine oasis rising up from the desert we can still end the day with a hot shower, a good meal, and a cozy bed.

Blooming in the Desert

After a look at the big picture, we’re ready for our close-up. The Chihuahuan Desert Gardens is perfect for an in-depth investigation of the vast variety of tenacious vegetation that flourishes in this climate. The collection contains over 600 species of plants indigenous to the region.

As part of the University of Texas at El Paso, the groups of themed assortments are a valuable tool for botanical and environmental education, or simply enjoying for their beauty.

Just down the road, the Chamizal National Memorial is not what we’d call a garden in the classic sense, but the landscaped grounds are perfect for a picnic or for attending a concert in the amphitheater. The memorial also includes art galleries and a museum that explains some of the history of the U.S.–Mexico border and disputes that have arisen when the river has changed its course.

On a Mission


Image via Flickr by awsheffield

Speaking of history, much like the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park that we visited several years ago, the El Paso Mission Trail connects Spanish missions dating back to the 1600s.

Beginning at the Ysleta Mission, celebrated as “the oldest continuously active parish in the State of Texas,” the trail travels through some of Spain’s earliest established outposts in what would later become the United States. These served as more than churches, they functioned as political footholds in the expanding New World.

Traveling southeast along the Mexican border, the next stop on the trail is the Socorro Mission. Completed in 1691, this comes in as a close runner-up, being the second oldest settlement in the state.

A few miles further, and about one hundred years later, the Spanish Crown established the San Elizario Presidio as a military compound to provide protection for the missions. It served as an important stronghold for New Spain, but soon Mexico won its freedom from the colonial power.

Before long Texas declared its independence, followed by the war between the U.S. and Mexico. After that the fort was abandoned and now all that survives is the chapel.

The confluence of these cultures reminds us that our explorations could not be considered complete without a taste of the cross-border cuisine that Texas is famous for. We wouldn’t think of leaving before tasting the best Tex-Mex food to be found.

That’s what we’d call saving room for desert.

This article was created in collaboration with InterContinental Hotels Group.

Street Food Eating our Way Through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

Across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, we set out to sample as many street delicacies as possible and got off to a jumping start at a weekend street fair in Cancun.

In the Yucatán, many of the favorite foods can be traced back to Mayan times. In addition to building incredible cities, the Maya people grew… CONTINUE READING >>

Thanks to the folks at Ensure we felt secure that we could venture into this epicurean episode without risking any nutritional repercussions. They were kind enough to sponsor our video, and provided a supply of their new Ensure Active, which kept us hydrated throughout our escapades. All opinions are our own.

Mobile street food vender in Piste, Mexico

The inclination to grab a bite to eat on the street is not something new.

Most likely the first time two roads crossed, some enterprising chef set up a cart at the new intersection to provide passersby a mobile snack.

The idea of fast food is not a recent development; it’s the culmination of centuries of selling food on the fly. We saw it in Pompeii, where corner cafes had counters right on the curb.

Fruit and vegetable street stand in Valladolid Mexico

Chapulines, or crickets is a street delicacy in Mexico

Across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, we set out to sample as many street delicacies as possible and got off to a jumping start at a weekend street fair in Cancun.

Before we made it to the mass of vendors in the Parque de las Palapas, we encountered a young man with two buckets. One was obviously filled with spiced peanuts; the other looked to be brimming with bugs.

David eats a cricket in Cancun Mexico

“Crickets,” he informed us. Known as chapulines, these buggers are traditionally found in the nearby state of Oaxaca.

In summer and early fall, the insects are harvested out of the corn and alfalfa fields, cleaned, boiled, and then baked or fried with plenty of spices. Never ones to back away from trying something strange or new, when offered a sample we both popped one in our mouths.

Not bad, the chili overshadowed any bug-like flavor. Not a new favorite or anything, but way better than a silkworm.

WATCH: We eat our way through the Yucatan – calorie count not included, for your guilt-free viewing pleasure!

An elote cart in Valladolid
An elote cart in Valladolid

In the Yucatán, many of the favorite foods can be traced back to Mayan times. In addition to building incredible cities, the Maya people grew corn.

The grain was a staple of their diet, just as it is for their descendants today. Good old corn on the cob, called elote, is one of the most popular street foods all across Mexico.

Elote from a street vendor in Cancun

Elote in a cup in Cancun
Esquites in Cancun

Dressed up with cheese and chili pepper it is a tasty treat, but down in the southern sections of the country we came across a variation we had never seen before.

Esquites is same ingredients, only served in a cup. The corn is cut off of the cob and a wild array of condiments is offered as toppings, and then eaten with a spoon. Not as fun, but definitely not as messy.

Carrying wares on the street in Piste, Mexico

Tamale cart in Valladolid Mexico
Tamale cart in Valladolid

While exploring the inland town of Valladolid, one of the more intriguing offerings we encountered curbside were the charred, leaf-wrapped packets we kept seeing in the Mayan neighborhood.

They looked a lot like the dim sum sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves served in China, but were obviously cooked over fire. Our guess was — even though they were much larger than we had ever seen before — that they were most likely tamales.

Made sense since the Maya people invented tamales, and have continued making them for thousands of years.

Tamale in Valladolid Mexico

Unlike the corn husk wrapping we are used to seeing (or the scary grease soaked paper of the canned versions), these tamales are cooked in banana leaves, which does wonders for the flavor.

The sweetness, mixed with the smoky flavor from fire roasting and the spicy filling, made for the best we’ve ever had. Much of that unique goodness is a result of the cooking over coals in underground ovens known as pibs.

That is so much a part of the process that pib has become the slang term for tamales across the Yucatán.

Conchinita pibil street food stand in Valladolid Mexico
Conchinita cart in Valladolid


Another regional dish that can be traced back to the ancient Mayans, and is also cooked underground, is conchinita pibil.

Cochinita means baby pig, and pibil is the Mayan word for buried, which perfectly describes the dish.

While it has become less common to roast a whole suckling pig, the method remains the same; marinate pork in the juice of bitter oranges and achiote, wrap the meat in banana leaves, and slow cook it over coals underground.

Panuchos conchinita pibil in Piste Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula
Panuchos conchinita pibil in Pisté
Conchinita pibil sandwich in Valladolid Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula
Conchinita pibil as a sandwich

The end result is tender, flavorful pulled pork that instantly became our new favorite.

Not a day went by that we didn’t have some conchinita, several times at breakfast!

It is almost always served with pickled onions, and often on bread, but we also had it on tortillas and even saw it advertised as a pizza topping.

Lime soup or Sopa de lima in Piste, Mexico
Sopa de lima in Pisté

At a sidewalk café in Pisté, the small town that serves as the gateway to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, we were introduced to one of the most popular dishes of the region, sopa de lima.

Being soup, it is not generally served on the street, but lime soup is available pretty much everywhere else in the Yucatán. As the name implies, lime is a key ingredient, but this is more of a traditional chicken soup, with tortilla strips taking the place of noodles. Freakin’ YUM.

Cooking street tacos in Cancun Mexico

Speaking of tortillas, we certainly cannot overlook the importance, and abundance, of tacos to the street food scene in Mexico.

There are variations common to the different parts of the country, but they have all permeated the entire land and beyond.

The name taco is thought to come from silver miners in the 1800s, who thought that the explosive charges of gunpowder wrapped in paper they used to blow holes in rock looked similar to their lunch. The food had been common for centuries before that, but no one seems to know what it was called.

Street tacos in Cancun Mexico

Nameless or not, tacos were around well before the Spanish arrived.

In fact, in his 1568 book, A True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote a first-hand account of a 1520 dinner party where conquistador Hernán Cortés ate tacos with the Aztecs.

He went on to repay their hospitality by double crossing them.

Tacos dorados in Cancun Mexico

Ground corn, cooked into tortillas, is still the delivery system of choice for almost any filling imaginable.

We may not know what the Aztecs or Mayans called them, but they go by many names now.

From the basic tacos al carbon, where the meat is grilled over live coals, to tacos dorados meaning golden tacos, because they are deep fried to a golden brown.

Tacos al pastor in Cancun Mexico

One of the most popular taco types in all of Mexico is not descendent from the ancient natives at all, but from Lebanon.

In the first half of the twentieth century many Lebanese immigrants came to Mexico to escape the Ottoman Empire and brought with them their traditional foods.

However, some of the ingredients were not readily available in their new home and dishes had to adapt. Tacos al pastor is a perfect example.

Tacos al pastor in Cancun Mexico

The lamb used for shawarma, the spit-grilled meat common throughout the Middle East, just wasn’t around in the Yucatán, so pork replaced it.

New seasonings, including pineapple were incorporated, and when served on tortillas instead of pita… presto, tacos al pastor.

Tacos Rigos in Cancun specializes in tacos de cabeza or head tacos
Tacos Rigos in Cancun specializes in head tacos; David needs a moment to adjust to the idea.


After a few days of taco tasting we were feeling pretty adventurous, so we decided to try the possibly disgust… rather, shall we say, somewhat exotic tacos de cabeza, or head tacos.

The process involves steaming a whole cow’s head and removing certain parts to use inside of tacos.

The most common portions are Sesos (brains), Trompa (lips), Cachete (cheek), Lengua (tongue), and Ojo (eyes).

Cheek, tongue and eyeball tacos in Cancun Mexico! GypsyNester.com

We went for the cheek, tongue, and eyeballs, after all, there’s only so much cabeza a person can take… and we wanted to save some to try later… yeah, right.

The cheek was fairly normal meat, perfectly good, and the tongue was not too unusual either. We had tried it through the years on sandwiches and other dishes. But the eyes… let’s just say it was not a pretty sight.

Eyeball taco in Cancun Mexico! GypsyNester.com
Are you looking at ME?!

The eyes are chopped up after steaming, and then braised on a grill, which helped slightly.

In fact, had we not known what we were eating we may have thought it was just a really fatty, grisly cut of meat.

But we did know, which brought new meaning to the saying watch what you eat.

We were diligent though, and managed to consume a fair amount of the bovine peepers, until it hit us… what if they were watching us back?!?!

It was easier to get past eating a bug than thinking about that.

Gory taco in Cancun, Mexico
We were, however, somewhat petrified to try our luck in this place!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Thanks to the folks at Ensure we felt secure that we could venture into this epicurean episode without risking any nutritional repercussions. They were kind enough to sponsor our video, and provided a supply of their new Ensure Active, which kept us hydrated throughout our escapades. All opinions are our own.

See all of our adventures in Mexico!

YOUR TURN: Fire away! What looks good and what wouldn’t you eat in a million years (we would never ask that you are as crazy as we are!)?