Holocaust Remembrance Day

Seeing as yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to post about my experience traveling to Auschwitz in Krakow, Poland this past summer, in addition to meeting a Holocaust survivor in Budapest just a few short days after. I already wrote about this a few months ago in my blog, but seeing as this important day is designated to remember the atrocities that occurred years ago, I thought it would be appropriate to repost some of my experiences.

When my tour group arrived at Auschwitz, the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.

There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.

Throughout our tour, we saw hundreds of suitcases, personal belongings, and family treasures that countless people were stripped of. And as we concluded the tour with a viewing of the gas chamber and crematorium, we saw where many of these people were stripped of their lives. It is crucial that we do not forget about this devastating time in history so that such atrocities do not repeat themselves. Genocide has occurred all throughout the world, and with such unspeakable acts of horror continuing to this day, we must speak on behalf of those who lost their lives and advocate for those still alive today before it is too late.

A few days after touring Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my tour group arrived in Budapest, Hungary, where we walked through the immaculate Dohány Street Synagogue. After walking through the beautiful Synagogue, we came across an elegant little shop run by this cute, little elderly woman who was selling handmade Jewish crafts and goods. We were told that this elderly woman, Lucy Brown was actually a Holocaust survivor. Lucy was a teenager when she, her mother, and sister were taken with the other women from their town on a march, led by the Arrow Cross Army. As they were marching towards the Danube River (where the Jews would be shot and thrown into the River), a street cleaner opened up a gate to clean the grounds behind the gate. Lucy grabbed her mother and sister, and ran through the gate, and fortunately enough, the Arrow Cross leader didn’t notice. Lucy ripped off the yellow stars from their shirts, and the three of them went into hiding until the end of the war, thanks to gentile neighbors and friends of theirs. Because of Lucy’s courage, she saved herself, her mother, and her sister.

There are countless stories of heroic Holocaust survivors, but we must listen to them and pass these stories on before there is no one left to share such experiences.

Days 6 and 7 In Costa Rica- Last Night and Day In San José

This morning we left the Cloud Forest of Monteverde, and headed back towards San José to spend our last full day in Costa Rica. The scenery that we came across during the drive was breathtaking and we couldn’t have asked for better weather! We even managed to spot monkeys in the trees on the side of the road as well as some interesting looking birds too. We stopped at a local snack and smoothie shop, where we had the opportunity to sample some typical Costa Rican treats, but we were more interested in the smoothies since the fruit here is so fresh and delicious.

Pictured below is also a sign that says, “Pura Vida,” which is a saying you’ll hear a lot throughout the country! The exact translation in English is “pure life,” but the phrase is also used for purposes of saying, “Take it easy,” “Enjoy life,” “All good,” “Purity in life,” “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and even “This is life!” “Pura vida means that no matter what your current situation is, life for someone else can always be less fortunate than your own. So you need to consider that maybe…just maybe, your situation isn’t all that bad and that no matter how little or how much you have in life, we are all here together and life is short” which is why we should live it ‘pura vida style’ (http://www.bestcostaricantours.com).

We stopped for a quick meal in San José, but more noteworthy was our dinner at a local restaurant, which is all pictured below. The food surely didn’t disappoint, and neither did the view in the late afternoon! When we woke up the following morning, we had some free time to spend walking around the city before having to make our way over to the airport. Our first stop was at the Museos del Banco Central which has an enormous collection of over 1,600 Pre-Columbian golden artifacts, dating back to AD 500. It was definitely an interesting sight, but we didn’t stay in the museum too long because there was still more we wanted to see in the city.

We walked around the center of San José for a little while until we made our way over to the National Theater of Costa Rica. The theater was built in 1897 in an attempt to show off the economic improvements of the country, all thanks to the blooming success of coffee exportation. With Italian marble, glass and wood brought in from France, and spacious seating, who could complain?

The theater was a beautiful sight, but as our tour wrapped up, we made sure to grab one last meal before it was time for us to finally depart. And so our trip to Costa Rica had unfortunately concluded, but we had definitely hoped to return sometime in the future!

Day 5 In Costa Rica Continued- Coffee and Chocolate Farm Tour In Monteverde

Seeing as Costa Rica is known for its delicious Coffee, and of course its successful coffee exportation, we had to stop by and tour a local coffee farm. But to make things even better, the farm also produces and manufactures chocolate. And right when we thought our luck couldn’t get any better, we were even provided traditional Costa Rican food for lunch before the tour even started!

We began with the coffee part of the tour which began with a brief history lesson about the start of Costa Rican coffee and its importance in helping boost Costa Rica’s economy. We started by looking at the beginning stages, which of course are the coffee seeds. We then saw how the coffee cherries are picked, and how the pulp of the cherries are removed. From there, the coffee beans must be washed and dried under the sun. They are then stored in large, fiber sacks which helps with the breathing and aging process. Selection, roasting, and packaging of the coffee beans are all completed on site. And any brave volunteers were given the opportunity to ride in a traditional ox cart which showed how the coffee beans were transported years ago.

From there, we were given some historical background into the fascinating world of chocolate. We learned how the cocoa beans are roasted and ground, once the husks of the seeds had been separated. We then tried the fruit of the cacao, and made our own chocolate too! Although the experience was incredible, I have to admit, buying pre-made chocolate is a much easier process! And as an additional treat, we were shown how sugarcane is traditionally extracted to make sugarcane juice, which was also delicious!

We had a great time touring Don Juan’s Coffee and Chocolate Farm, and much to our surprise, we had the chance to meet Mr. Don Juan Cruz at the end of the tour. Born in 1937 to one of the first pioneering farming families in Monteverde area, Don Juan was a true gentleman with delicious coffee and chocolate! (http://donjuancr.com).

As our tour came to a close, it was time for us to return back to the hotel to enjoy our last night in Monteverde. Our group went out to a local restaurant and enjoyed the evening together before having to make our way back to San José the following morning.

Day 5 In Costa Rica- Hanging Bridges and Zip-lining In Monteverde

This morning we woke up and enjoyed a delicious assortment of fruit, cheeses, eggs, and bread, all typical of Costa Rica. The food here, especially the fruit is so fresh that it makes you question the quality of what we eat back in the States. After we finished eating, we embarked on our morning tour which was the Selvatura Canopy Tour.

The Selvatura Canopy Tour is known for being one of the best ones in Costa Rica. The cables and platforms are built into the Cloud Forest, which really allows you to feel as though you are in the sky. With 15 cables and 18 viewing platforms stretching over two miles of cloud forest, Selvatura Park has the longest cable length in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican Cloud Forest is known for its incredibly diverse ecosystem. It is home to 120 species of reptiles and amphibians, 130 species of mammals, an astounding 500 species of birds, and more than 3,000 species of plants.

We began my viewing all of the “Hanging Bridges,” which have this name due to the fact that the bridges honestly feel as though they are hanging over the entire forest. From there, we zip-lined all throughout the Cloud Forest, which was scary to say the least, but definitely worth the experience. To be able to see the breathtaking views everywhere you look during this exhilarating adventure is truly an experience of a lifetime.

At the end of the tour, we came across a “Tarzan Swing” which is a small platform suspended above ground in which you have to jump off and swing out above the Cloud Forest. There was no way I was going to partake in the Tarzan Swing, but after hearing everyone who did it say how exciting it was, I figured I would give it a try. Here I was boasting about how incredible breakfast tasted, and I felt as though it was about to come back up! I hesitated before jumping off the platform but when I did, a rush of wind hit me in the face. I closed my eyes for a few brief seconds on the way down, but knew I had to open them again if I really wanted to enjoy this. I opened my eyes and saw the cloud forest in front of me as I swung towards it. It was truly invigorating, but I have to admit that I was overcome with gladness when my feet reached the ground upon landing.

The tour was followed up with a much calmer activity, as we entered the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to visit the Gallery of Hummingbirds. Costa Rica is known for having 50 species of hummingbirds, many of which are known to nest around the Cloud Forest. It’s difficult to take pictures of them since they fly so quickly, but if look closely at the pictures below, you can see them eating at their feeding stations. We had to keep a watchful eye though because they had no problem flying right up to us, but there were so many of them flying up to us at once!

Day 4 In Costa Rica- Leaving Arenal for Monteverde

Today was our last day in Arenal before continuing along with our travels throughout Costa Rica. Upon waking up, we embarked on a two-mile hike along Las Coladas trail in the Arenal National Park. The view of the volcano was incredible, and fortunately the weather was great too. Upon the conclusion of our hike, we proceeded to Monteverde, also known as the cloud forest due to its high elevation, which will be discussed more in-depth in the next blog post. We took advantage of happy hour in our hotel, Hotel El Establo once we arrived to Monteverde, and since there’s never really a limit on how much one eats during vacations, we made sure to go out for dinner at a local restaurant too.

Day 3 In Costa Rica- Full Day In Arenal

Today we had a full day to spend in Arenal, so we took an optional Caño Negro boat tour with our group. The Caño Negro is a wildlife refuge where one can take group tours along the Río Frio, or cold river that slowly progresses into the Caño Negro Lake. Since the tour leaves from Los Chiles, which is less than two and a half miles from the Nicaraguan border, every passenger must bring a copy of their passport because you the tour starts beside a checkpoint along the Nicaraguan border. We were given the opportunity to take pictures by the Nicaraguan border, but that was as far up as the boat would go before returning to shore. We encountered a boat that was headed to Costa Rica from Nicaragua, and we were told that often times people from Nicaragua will travel to Costa Rica by boat for work and return home later in the evening since.

After the Caño Negro boat tour, we were provided lunch in a local restaurant and returned back to Arenal from there. We made a quick stop for fruit flavored ice cream because everything involving fruit in Costa Rica is absolutely delicious. As we walked off the bus and headed towards the ice cream shop, we noticed large green iguanas sitting around outside. The iguanas pictured below are so large that we sat next to them just to compare! If you find one on a tree branch, don’t be surprised if you see it jump to a different branch. They’re a lot more mobile than they look!

We made it back to Arenal where we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around at leisure and came across more beautiful views of the Arenal Volcano just before the sun started to set. We had another traditional Costa Rican dinner before turning in for the night, and if you couldn’t tell by the pictures, the food hasn’t disappointed!

Day 2 In Costa Rica- Traveling to Arenal

Upon waking up and eating breakfast, it was time for us to board the bus and officially begin our tour of Costa Rica. We drove around San Juan are got to see the city by bus, before continuing with our drive to Arenal. On the way, we stopped in Sarchi, which is known to be an artisan town, also known as a tourist trap for travelers eager to start spending their allotted souvenir money. Sarchi is home to traditional oxcarts of all different colors, which happens to be Costa Rica’s most famous type of craft since oxcarts have been used to transport coffee beans for centuries. And if you didn’t already know, Costa Rica is home to incredible coffee (which will be discussed in a later post).

We were given snacks, drinks, and fresh fruit before leaving, because the key to any tourist’s heart is to give them free food to get them in the mood to start spending. Once we left Sarchi, we continued on our way, but stopped again thirty minutes later in the city of Zarcero. The bus parked right outside Iglesia de San Rafael, a blue and pink church with various paintings of the stations of the cross. When you exit the church, you’ll find yourself in Parque Francisco Alvarado, which is a fun and beautiful park known for its shrubs that have been trimmed in the shapes of different animals and fun pathways to walk through. We had a little bit of free time to quickly have lunch, so we did so before boarding the bus again.

We made one more stop along to way to the hotel, and that was to a local Costa Rican school. While at the school, we got a chance to meet the students and watch them perform a cultural dance for us that they put together themselves. It was truly a unique opportunity that we all really enjoyed. We boarded the bus once more and finally continued on our trip straight through to our hotel in the district of La Fortuna in San Carlos alongside the Arenal Volcano. As you can see in the pictures below, we had an incredible view of the volcano from our hotel, and once we were finished taking pictures we went out into the city for a traditional Costa Rican dinner, thus concluding our first full day in Costa Rica.