Monthly Archives: August 2015

Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel & Nature Reserve

photo 1(54)After a good first day in San Jose, Costa Rica, my group headed toward to the country’s Central Highlands region to see the Cloud Forest – and to spend the night at a property there.

The various cloud forests in Costa Rica is where there’s an abundance of bio-diversity with different species of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. It’s also a lot cooler here, but comfortably. Rain showers are the norm.

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My group went to the San Ramon area for a stay at the Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel & Nature Reserve. It’s an eco-minded boutique hotel that originally was owned by former Costa Rican president Rodrigo Carazo Odio and his wife, Estrella Zeledon de Carazo. Now owned by a company called Greentique Hotels, what makes this property pretty neat is that it’s surrounded by Los Angeles Private Biological Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary that guests could go on a guided walk through.

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The main building on the property is where the hotel reservations desk and restaurant can be found. There’s also a gift shop, game room, lobby bar, lounge areas on the ground floor and on the second level, and even a movie theater. Outside this building, guests can opt to stay at one of a number of casitas (garden villas) that are small cottages equipped high-speed internet access and feature nice touches like a wood-burning fireplace.

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The property has a sustainable farm that provides ingredients for the restaurant. In the greenhouse, you can find eggplants, lettuce and herbs that will end up on someone’s dinner plate. There’s also a working dairy farm where guests can learn how to milk “celebrity cows” in residence. There’s Lady Gaga and Brittany Spears, since their names were chosen by hotel guests.

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Farming aside, you’ll also find a chapel on the property that was an anniversary gift from the president to his wife. We were told that the chapel is pretty popular for holding weddings. By taking a look at the ceiling, we found out why. The ceiling is covered with various hand-painted pictures of symbols of Costa Rica and other countries in Central America.

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One really neat building here is the Jose Miguel Alfaro Research Station, where researchers from the University of Costa Rica monitor what’s happening in the adjacent nature reserve. You can go inside the station. Here you’ll see dioramas of various insects and watch a video from a monitor that records nighttime creatures.

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As for visiting the reserve, there are daytime and nocturnal guided walks where the hotel guides can lead you on a path and stop to point out any inhabitants along the way. My group did a nocturnal walk and we were able to see walking sticks, a viper (very far up in the tree), and different frogs. And we really lucked out by seeing the famous red-eyed tree frog!

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Back at Villa Blanca’s main building, we had our meals inside the restaurant, with locally sourced ingredients incorporated into every dish: coffee, plantains, and pineapple, among others. Very good and very tasty. Overall, the stay was very relaxing, and even as the rain greeted us, it was a good sign.

Discovering Costa Rica’s Culinary Scene

photo 5(26)Costa Rica is often recognized for its beaches and wildlife but its culinary side is getting more attention through a new gastronomic program. Recently I went on an assignment through Visit Costa Rica tourism board to learn more about a new national gastronomic program that promotes more use of native Costa Rican ingredients and dishes – as often done with home cooking – for sustainable, healthful and economical benefits.

Of course to see this program in action we went to places that reflected good examples.

Feria Verde

Our start was in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, with a visit to Feria Verde, or translated as The Green Fair. Founded by the Organic Lovers Association (AAMOR), a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable living within Costa Rica, Feria Verde is an eco-minded farmer’s market happening on Saturdays mornings in the neighborhood of Aranjuez.

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My group went to Feria Verde Aranjuez, which is about five years old now. It’s held at a place called Polideportivo Aranjuez, in the morning hours, and on our day we walked along a pathway is lined with booths manned by restaurants, organic farms, and other various local producers offering fruits and veggies, breads, sauces, and even coffee.

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Other edibles available for purchase included locally made cheeses, hot and mild sauces and even popsicles. And we were able to get some breakfast too. From one vendor, we ordered “un gallo ranchero,” an egg, cheese, and tomato sauce medley on a corn tortilla. We also had coffee from Taza Amarilla, an organic coffee farm that has a regular spot at Feria Verde Aranjuez.

Chateau 1525

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Another place that we went to on our first full day is Chateau 1525, a culinary school and restaurant inside a former mansion dating back to the 1930s. During lunch hour, the school’s students put on a five-course culinary presentation that gave us a taste of tradition and a side of interpretation. We were given a history lesson too on the food staples in the Costa Rican diet and the Spanish, African, and indigenous influences reflected in these dishes.

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For example, “Vuelve a la Vida” can be compared to ceviche (raw fish treated with a lime or lemon juice) but a dish is made of different types of seafood that are diced and then given some lemon juice. Stew also has its place in Costa Rican traditions and a regional one called “Olla de Carne,” a strong beef and root vegetable concoction that can make for a nice remedy when someone is sick – like chicken soup.

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Rice and beans are also essentials in Costa Rica and a typical dish is called Gallo Pinto and it can come with chicken or fish. For dessert, the student chefs whipped up different treats that are featured at town festivals, which are called turnos. We had sorbetera (a vanilla based ice cream with spices), churros, and sugared apples, among other goodies.

We ended our day with dinner at Tintos y Blancos, a family-owned restaurant in San Diego that focuses on Mediterranean cuisine. Its innovate decor is built around wine, with a look that resembles a wine cellar. There are nearly 500 wines in stock – with many also available for purchase – that compliment every meal. Origins extend to France, Italy, Chile and Argentina – the latter a nod to the owners’ heritage. Overall, it was a filling first day.

Editor’s Note: I was invited by Visit Costa Rica to learn more about its culinary offerings, but all opinions are my own.

Exploring Cheyenne and Cheyenne Frontier Days

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Last month, I went to Cheyenne, Wyoming in timing with the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days. Cheyenne was founded as part of the westward expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad. Literally the city developed as demand for workers, and keeping those workers, grew. Today, Cheyenne remains connected to its frontier heritage, but is also promoting different interests that appeal to different travelers: craft breweries, innovative cuisine, and hiking and biking trails.

Ideally, if you can, visit Cheyenne when Cheyenne Frontier Days is happening. Going on since 1897, this two-week bonanza happens every July. The event has rightfully earned the tagline the “Daddy of ‘Em All” due to being recognized as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and western celebration.


With the main attractions held at Frontier Park, Cheyenne Frontier Days includes longstanding traditions, family-friendly activities, and, of course, its main event, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Rodeo. Almost 1,500 contestants participate in the PRCA Rodeo, striving to win more than $1 million in money and prizes.

If you haven’t seen a live rodeo before, here’s what you can expect. There are three types of competitions in which a contestant’s score depends on both him and the bull or horse’s performance. They are timed events like roping, barrel racing, and steer wrestling; roughstock events, which involve bull riding, bareback riding, and saddle bronc riding; and other competitions such as wild horse race and an all-around competition.


For the ultimate in learning about rodeo, you can take the free “Behind the Chutes” tour. It brings you all around the arena, and down to the chutes where riders, bulls, and broncs emerge from. I got to walk on the arena floor and got a closeup view of the chutes — even hopped up over the fence (which took some effort on my part) and landed on the side where riders wait their turn.  photo 1(45)

While at Frontier Park, you can also explore Old Frontier Town, a replica of a village complete with storefronts. Native Americans have been involved in Cheyenne Frontier Days just about since its beginning. Inside the Indian Village, you can watch a fascinating demonstration of dances and storytelling by American Indian performers in native costumes.

Other events include the Grand Parades, happening in downtown Cheyenne; the Midway Carnival with amusement rides and fair food; free and hugely popular pancake breakfasts; and an air show by the USAF Thunderbirds.  At night, the Frontier Nights series features concerts by major headliners, where advanced ticket purchases are a must. The list of names on the 2015 schedule explains why: Aerosmith, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, and Big and Rich.

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Of course, Cheyenne has many other attractions. Especially for outdoorsy types. Take a 30-minute drive west from Cheyenne to Vedauwoo, a stone-centered area within Medicine Bow National Forest. Vedauwoo is made up of tons of Sherman Granite formations dating back to 1.4 billion years ago. Cautious amateurs and experienced ramblers can walk around these boulders or slabs and then pull or step up on them for higher views. There’s also a seasonal camping area here.

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Another good outdoor option is Curt Gowdy State Park, about 25 miles from Cheyenne. Named for the late sportscaster and Wyoming native, this state park has 35 miles of hiking and biking trails at various rated levels, plus sections for horseback riding and even archery. Start off your day with a stop at the park’s visitor center to pick up a map or learn more about this state park.

If you’re looking to do some horse back riding, one place to stop at is Terry Bison Ranch. The ranch offers one-hour or full-day trail rides with some slight hill climbs. For me, it was my first time on a horse, and I’m really glad I was with a group on a trail ride. It’s probably the best thing to do if you’re a beginer. If you’re a bit horse shy, you can opt to go on a train ride instead. Before or after your ride, get some grub at the ranch’s Senator’s Restaurant. The Bison burger with just about any topping to choose from is quite nice.

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Back in Cheyenne, you can walk around downtown area, but the best way to get your bearings is by going on a historic trolley tour. Departing from The Depot Center, these tours take you through Cheyenne’s historic sections, where enthusiastic guides will spout off rousing tales relating to different areas they’re passing through.

My guide/driver Val entertained us with stories about Cheyenne’s early rowdy days and tidbits about what Wyoming giving women a lot of firsts: the right to vote and own property plus having the first woman governor. The tour drives by places such as the Capitol Building, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and Frontier Park.

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Withing dining in Cheyenne, if you’re a steak, ribs or BBQ fan, you’re good. At the Rib and Chop House, a local restaurant chain in downtown Cheyenne, you can order falling off the bone tender baby back ribs or premium cuts. When en route back from Curt Gowdy State Park, the family-friendly The Bunkhouse Bar cooks up comfort food specialties include chicken fried steak and various sandwiches and burgers.

Yet if you’re seeking something different, Morris House Bistro takes you south with its lowcountry cooking. Based in the former home of the first female Justice of the Peace, this bistro serves up seasonal Southern dishes inspired by Chef Dameione Cameron’s family recipes. His Grandmother Mitzy came up with the recipe for Cameron’s crab cakes, which are great. Other relative delights include smoked chicken wings in a tobacco sauce, shrimp n’ grits, mac and cheese, and fried okra.


As craft beer is booming, Cheyenne has its share of local suds. The family-owned Freedom’s Edge Tap House Brewing Co. produces small-batch brews at its location inside The Tivoli Building, which in its heyday operated as a saloon. There, you can order a glass or flight of on-tap creations such as the Java Jolt Coffee Amber ale or the spicy High Noon Chili ale.

Or for a good cocktail, head to The Suite Bistro for flavored martinis like the WY Campfire, a marshmallow vodka and Kahlua mixture, to go with their fine dining menu. And if you’re seeking some nightlife, catch it at The Outlaw Saloon. With a main dance floor, pool tables and dartboards plus an outdoor backyard setting with a stage, and even a mechanical bull, you’ll be quite entertained at this nightclub.

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If you find yourself in sudden need of cowboy gear, especially during Cheyenne Frontier Days, The Wrangler is the place to be—and buy from. With a selection of nearly 500 hats plus a plethora of boots, belts, bejeweled jeans, and other ranch wear, customers can get help from sales personnel to make sure their hat brim fits just right. To fix that, a hat can be custom shaped by streaming it. For other finds, Wyoming Home has furnishings that fit a frontier taste, from bedding and house fixtures to jewelry and knickknacks plus edible treats. With the ladies, Just Dandy carries women’s fashions and accessories.

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Directly or just outside of downtown, visitors have charming options for lodging. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Nagle Warren Mansion B & B  is well-to-do Victorian home, turned bed and breakfast features 12 bedrooms graced with antique furniture. The mansion still holds touches from its past but has received modern-day amenities, including a workout facility and sauna. An afternoon English high tea is served there from 2 to 4 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. And added warmth comes from Jim Osterfoss, its gracious innkeeper.

Just outside of downtown Cheyenne, the Little America Hotel & Resort offers luxury accommodations surrounded by 80 acres of prairie views. The property also has a nine-hole golf course, heated outdoor swimming pool, private lounge area, boutique gift shop, café, and Hathaway’s restaurant.

Back downtown, the Historic Plains Hotel has welcomed notable guests since opening in 1911 as Wyoming’s first luxury hotel. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were here, and so were Debbie Reynolds and Jimmy Stewart. There’s also some neat trivia: the walkway that connects the hotel lobby to a main avenue was nicknamed “Peacock Alley” where men allegedly would try to make a move on ladies coming in from the nearby theater or street. Its restaurant, the Capitol Grille, features a wide range of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options with Wyoming ingredients.

Disclosure: As a media professional, I was invited by Visit Wyoming tourism board to go on a FAM trip in timing with Cheyenne Frontier Days. My descriptions are strictly of my own doing.