The best part about traveling in an unfamiliar place is finding exactly what you didn't expect.
Take, for example, the French bakery on the side of the narrow two-lane road just over the ditch about a mile from downtown Tamarindo. From the outside, La Panaderia de Paris sits inside a tired building complex, including a motel notable for its beach proximity and not so much for its elegance. Entering a dark hallway, an old man, curiously from China, sat slumped in a wooden chair just outside the bakery’s door. I nodded hello, unsure if his silent stare was an ominous warning or a curious gaze that I had stumbled into the place.
And then I walked in.
Racks of pan de raisins, croissants, chocolate éclairs; baguettes baking in vintage ovens, the air pungent with yeast and flour and roasting coffee bean ground for espresso and cappuccinos; and a gracious French woman bustling behind the counter, swapping in trays of macaroons and fruit tarts, tossing me a warm and familial bonjour. Immediately I felt like a regular rather than a passing tourist. I bought hungrily, longing for the buttery flakes and thirsting to affirm my role as a local, feeling like I belonged in this stunning country just as this French woman, who took over from the original owner some 30 years before, had made Costa Rica home.
She bagged up my goodies – I reiterated that most of these pastries were for my daughters, of course – and walked out of the shop, head high, smiling at the sleeping Chinese man and the brilliant sun glistening on the trees.
Six days and forty minutes minutes later, the girls and I were driving our Thrifty rental car east through villages and traditional Latin plazas en route to Santa Cruz, a town noted for a women cooperative tortilla factory. Seasoned travelers know the richness of traveling happens when entering the non-tourist areas. The town was a worker’s town, a place where local Ticos hurried to work, sauntered to school, shopped for the day’s groceries or fixed a tire on the side of the road. Dogs scrambled at the sidewalk’s edge, hunting for anything to eat, and construction workers noisily pounded into cement blocks at the corner. Heavy exhaust sputtered and spewed from cranky old buses, the smell of fried chicken wafted from the corrugated iron-roofed shop, the sticky sweet of Fanta orange soda emanated from the hot, cracked sidewalk. Everyday, ordinary life and yet completely unfamiliar.
The girls and I wound through these busy streets, my oldest asking, “where ARE we??” and the face of my youngest smothered with hunger pains.
I checked my inadequate map, using well-used instinct more than scribbled guidebook directions. The streets were now dirt, and I knew patience was thin.
And then we found it. The tortilla “factory,” called Coopetortilla, towered over a quiet city block, a dilapidated warehouse with a handful of cracked windows, tall beams of rusted steel, a tilting ceiling, and importantly, an attached open-air cafe, covered by netting, sitting next to a gravel parking area. Not a single foreigner was around.
I parked under a shade tree, and we burst from the car into a hot sun and a handful of curious glances from the café’s guests. On pounded dirt sat a dozen picnic tables covered with flowery plastic tablecloths topped off by bowls of salsa, salt, and fermented carrots. From our table, we could see directly into the warehouse, a gaping room of darkness lit up by huge cooking fires in black metal drums that held vast grills, hovered over by grandmothers, mothers, and daughters forming and tossing and collecting hot tortillas. A slight breeze moved through the cavernous room, but I could only imagine the dense heat felt on their charcoaled cooking hands.
The waitress, maybe fifteen, efficiently brought us menus, and I asked her for a recommendation.
“Pollo,” she said helpfully, pointing to the chicken. “A los niños les gusta el pollo con tortillas.” Children like the chicken with tortillas. And besides, she added, that is what is being served today.
Okay, I responded, chicken with tortillas it is.
The other guests – a couple earnestly talking, an old woman feeding the dogs darting in and out of the café, laborers devouring plates of the day’s menu – glanced at us occasionally, nodding with a smile, and then seemed to lose interest in this motley group of lone females readying for lunch. Eventually I noticed each would wash their hands at the beginning and close of their meal at a small sink attached to the far outside wall of the warehouse. I motioned to the girls, and with “do we have to” stares, begrudgingly stood up and dutifully used the soap to wash off the morning’s grime.
Lunch, in a word, was decadent.
Fresh, hot corn tortillas melting in the mouth. Savory chicken meat, thin but falling off the bone. Marinated black beans and white rice joined by generous slivers of tomatoes. Sweet tea and pitchers of cold water.
The girls each ordered another plate, and the waitress flashed me a grin of approval as we ate. Finally stuffed, we left half a tortilla on the plate, unable to eat another bite. The girls washed their faces and hands, and the bill came.
I calculated the exchange rate: About $12, including tip. Experience: priceless.
Happy girls giggled to the car, asking when we could come back. Someday soon, I answered, hopeful, wistful. Someday.