The sun is just peeking over the horizon in the Costa Rican jungle as I strain my eyes to find “Munra’s” breakfast nook. There are no signs to find this pseudo restaurant, so I’m going off directions given to me by chef Munra himself the night before: “Go past the creek on the beach and then into the jungle 100 meters. Then call to me like a bird and I will find you.” For a second I wonder if it’s a good idea to wander into the unknown searching for a large man wielding a machete just to have some breakfast, but my senses tell me this Costa Rican version of the Incredible Hulk is to be trusted. Besides, he’s a fellow surfer and we seem to just sort of get along.
As the sun rises this morning, I wander with surfboard in hand down the beach, past the creek and into the jungle. I’m not sure what sort of bird to imitate so I just whistle poorly like what I imagine sounds something like a dying blue jay. Sure enough out of the bush, Munra emerges with his Hulk-like build and long sun-bleached wavy hair. We’re going for a surf together, but before, breakfast.
He beckons me over to sit beside his house (a tent under a canopy of beautiful palms) where he arranges a few handmade, grownup-sized Lincoln logs into a sort of ocean-side living room arrangement. “Breakfast is papaya!” he exclaims, wide eyed holding a machete. It’s a bit unnerving, but at the same time, he’s the type of person that if you know you’re on his good side, he’d gladly use his strength to defend you before anything else. Before hunting down the papayas, he steps to the side and grabs a couple of what look like dead brown coconuts. He carefully hacks off the tops with the precision of a samurai soldier, revealing that each in fact holds life, in the form of fresh coconut water. We drink the water and afterwards he hacks the coconuts in half leaving them by my side on a broken surfboard that serves as his dining table and cutting counter.
After a quick walk into the jungle, Munra emerges once again with two large just-fallen papayas. He skins the fruit with equal precision and slices them into pieces before placing them into the coconut bowls.
Next, he shapes two spoons out of nearby palm branches and finishes off the dish with a squeeze of lime juice. He informs me that eating the papaya seeds (an uncommon practice in the western world) helps alleviate digestion and acts as an anti-inflammatory. We eat while watching peeling, shifting waves from his reclaimed oceanfront property. I’m told the land was once owned by a local, but later abandoned out of fear of encroaching tourists.
Munra worries about being evicted for squatting on this amazing piece of land, since it is now so valuable. “You see, these people (foreigners), they just come and take everything. This isn’t theirs. This is mine. I am from here. These are my people. This is my land. These other people just come here and put phone towers and hotels and… you don’t need any of that. I have no phone, no computer, no Internet, no email… All you need is this,” he says as he points all around us, to his tent, the coconuts, the papaya and the surf. “I have it all.”
He laughs and quickly passes the whole thought of his native town being overrun in exchange for stories of barreling waves and secret spots that only a true local knows about. “SHOOOOOOMMMMMMM, and BOOOOOOOOMMM, AND THE BARRRRELLLLL ISSSSS SOOOOO BIGGGGGG!!!!!! MAN YOU CAN”T IMAGINE!!!” After breakfast, we surf. I bid Munra farewell for now and wander down the beach with a new friend, memory and a truly unique dining experience.
At lunchtime, I head over to Zwart Café just down the main and only road where Margriet Zwart is painting her own picture of what it means to live and eat in Santa Teresa.
A native of Canada, Margriet came to this small town in Costa Rica 10 years ago when there wasn’t much more than a couple small bodegas and a few people with large dreams of living off the grid in a Lost sort of lifestyle.
Her café has blossomed into a restaurant that serves healthy organic meals and smoothies as well as offering original paintings that she creates daily when taking a break from paddling down the faces of the waves that break out front. Today’s menu includes a roasted avocado with chick peas and red peppers along with a fresh fruit smoothie with papaya, watermelon and blackberry. When I mention the idea about writing a story around her café and about the small town, I sense an air of hesitation. Even the people here who aren’t true natives feel they are and carry the same sense of needing to protect this land. And to an extent they are, having been some of the first settlers apart from true locals like Munra. Israelis, Argentinians and Italians were the first to put down roots in Santa Teresa and they’ve kept most of the integrity of the area intact, carefully cultivating the culture, even if it’s slightly different than what had existed for hundreds of years. The economy runs almost entirely on cash, the laws of the town are more understood than set in stone and there’s rarely a police presence to keep check on things. Helmetless kids and parents ride ATVs to trilingual Montessori schools while tanned and sculpted boys, girls, men and women walk along the road with surfboards under arm for a post-lunch session. I head over to have my laundry done at one of the local Costa Rican’s houses where the sign reads “Laundry done with love.” The woman who runs the laundry service out of her house seems like the kindest grandmother you could imagine. So, I guess there’s something to be said for truth in advertising.
In the evening, a few friends and I head over to Casa Del Mar for dinner. It’s an outdoor Argentinian steakhouse that serves up prime cuts of meat cooked over a huge wood fire pit.
The logs are Madero Negro, a wood native to Costa Rica that provides the meat with a sweet and uniquely smoked flavor that can’t be replicated. Andreas, the owner and head chef, explains that he came to the hostel located just behind the restaurant five years earlier from Argentina, simply to surf. That passion turned into a small pizza oven and eventually into his new wood-fired patio that serves meat to the small masses on a nightly basis. Tonight we share the traditional parilla for two which is a BBQ meat platter consisting of Argentinian grilled ribs, chicken, sausage, beef tenderloin and pork. After the meal, I proudly declare us all to now be megans, the polar opposite of vegans. That said, the salads, fresh fruit smoothies and organic cocktails are nothing to run away from.
I ask if it’s ok to take a few pictures and Andreas says, “This is my home, this is your home, do as you like. You are one of us.” Being seen as a local in Santa Teresa has been easy, since I’m usually behind the lens out in the water when all the business owners are catching waves and I’m catching them on film.
I guess it goes to show that in a place that values what it is, it’s about what you bring to the table, more so than just being a tourist even if you’re just in town for a visit. You get what you give. And if you show respect for the past, the present and hopefully the future, all can stay in balance. I certainly hope it does for years to come in this amazing little enclave on the western peninsula of CR.