Black River, Jamaica

 

When I think of Jamaica, I think of dreadlocks, white sandy beaches, steel drums, and endless fruity rum drinks.  I imagine everyone in cornrows and tye-dye clothes, singing to the rhythms of Bob Marley while yelling ayyy, no worries, mon!!  While this is my fantasy (minus the cornrows because my scalp is too white), there is a lot more to this incredible island country than most of us expect.

 

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, Iberostar Rose Hall Beach Pool

 

While visiting Jamaica, I traveled with a group on several incredible tours through the middle of the country for the Black River Tour.  Most tourists only see the incredible beaches and turquoise waters of the north side of the island, stretching between Negril and Ocho Rios – but we traveled to the southern side of the island for a completely different experience. Our bus wound through the lush mountains just south of Montego Bay, and we ended up in the town of Black River. In Black River, there are beautiful churches, manicured lawns, and incredible houses that dot the expansive shoreline. The town is named after the black river, a name that misleads those who haven’t experienced its beauty. This crystal clear river flows from the center of the island out to sea, and is home to lush mangroves and plentiful wildlife.

 

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, Guide checking out the crocs on the black river

Our group boarded a boat in Black River, and embarked on a journey upstream.  Within moments, we spotted a prehistoric beast beyond anything we had ever seen.  We found ourselves face-to-face with an 18 foot crocodile, lumbering along through the water.  He noted us curiously, but lazily floated by.  After growing up watching Croc Hunter, part of me expected him to leap out of the water and try to steal one of my arms.  (I crossed them tightly just in case).  But he didn’t want to bother our boat, and kept his eyes on the birds darting down to the water for fish.  I had a strange moment of understanding as I watched this dinosaur relic- he wasn’t the killer Id expected him to be, he just wanted to be left in peace.

So, away we went, speeding away down the river in our pontoon boat.  This area of the country is breathtaking.  A small mountain range surrounds the valley through which the black river flows, and is blanketed by a dense, dark green jungle.  There was no trace of humanity around, and whenever the boat engine quieted, we could only here the soft chirping of birds and the gentle lapping of water against the mangroves.

 

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, Crocodile Black River Jamaica

We spotted another crocodile, then another.  Our wild guide even kissed one croc on the nose, while we all screamed and flailed and made a huge scene over it.  After a while, we started to realize how many there are in this area of Jamaica.  But, we soon learned that while they are plentiful on the river, they are highly endangered and only found in a few places.  Luckily, they are a protected species and can no longer be hunted- so we hope the species will return to a healthy number in the near future.

On the rest of our journey, we spotted several more crocodiles, flocks of egrets, and giant ferns (imagine Jurassic Park sized ferns) that were crowding the riverbanks.  This place was truly incredible.  Part of me expected a pterodactyl to swoop down from the sky and carry me away with its talons- but instead, we all popped open a Red Stripe and kicked back to take in the incredible scenery.  After a few hours of excitement and breathtaking beauty of the lush valley, we turned back towards the town of Black River.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, In the town of Black River

I never expected such an incredible and remote area to be hidden in the middle of Jamaica, but alas, this natural wonder proved to be an incredible hidden gem.  If you are lucky enough to take a trip down to the carefree island of Jamaica, set down your rum drink and change out of your flip flops for and adventure down to Black River- you will discover a spectacular valley and a charming town that you will never forget.

 

Pass the Grasshoppers: Cooking Class in Huatulco

 

I know it’s cliché to talk about listening to the sound of the ocean, but I am going to do it anyway.  Day 2, I woke up to the sound of waves crashing onto the beach.  And it was magical.

It was the beginning of my second day in Huatulco, and the day I was going to try my hand at traditional Oaxacan cooking.   I was thrilled, because I love learning authentic recipes and local traditions.  And, because I love eating!

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations,  Chilaquiles

 

To prepare for my day of eating, I started with the chilaquiles (chee-la-kee-lays) breakfast bar at Secrets.  If you’ve never had chilaquiles, open a new browser window and search for your closest authentic Mexican restaurant.  Go there, order chilaquiles, and return to this blog later.  It’ll still be here.  Chilaquiles is a dish that starts with a layer of lightly fried tortillas or chips, covered with a rich mole (moh-lay) sauce, salsa, and then crumbles of queso fresca.   I like mine topped with slices of onion and fresh avocado, drizzled with fresh Mexican crema and then sprinkled with a little extra queso.  (I’m only human, okay?)

So, after my chilaquiles warm up, a few of us headed over to cooking class in the heart of town.   The little city, La Crucecita, was founded long before all of the hotel developments along the coast, and still thrives today. The town square is lined with colorful buildings, bright green almond trees, and cobblestone streets.  I was taking thousands of photos and looking like a total turista as we pulled up to our destination.

We climbed the stairs of a corner building, up through tangled vines and hibiscus flowers that lined a colorful staircase. I took approximately 50 more photos.  We entered Café Juanita, a cozy restaurant owned and operated by a dynamic husband and wife duo, Alfredo and Jane.   Alfredo began to tell us about Oaxacan cooking and growing up in Huatulco, and offered us cold beers and cold teas.  I won’t mention which one I chose: but let me remind you again that I’m only human.

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, Kristen Kane

In the middle of the room, there were a variety of colorful bowls brimming with different types of Chiles.   I must confess that before, I thought that chiles came in two varieties…Red and Green.  Please don’t judge my stupidity.  There are apparently hundreds of types of chiles, all varying in color, size, sweetness, and spiciness, and they are an integral part of Mexican culture and cuisine.

Alfredo explained how different types of chiles create different types of mole sauces.  Mole is a Mexican staple, a rich dark brown sauce, made primarily with roasted ground chiles, fruits, and spices and often cocoa.  He told us how some moles have over 100 ingredients and take weeks to prepare.  For the record, my cooking skills are decent, but I’m lucky if I use any spices besides garlic salt.

Thank goodness Alfredo had already prepared the mole: we were just in charge of the tacos. We started with homemade corn tortillas, which were very different than the soft stacks of white, flour tortillas that I’m used to.  Corn tortillas are richer in flavor, and the only kind of tortilla that any self-respecting Oaxacan would eat.

 

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, Kristen Kane

We rolled out the dough and used a tortilla press to make perfect symmetrical circles.  Okay, I’m lying.  Mine was a lopsided and hideous oval, and absolutely nothing like Alfredo’s sample, but it was delicious.  We grilled the tortillas on clay plates heated over the stove, and made several varieties, for tacos, sopes (so-pays), and tlayudas (clay-you-das).

Alfredo then introduced us to Oaxacan cheese, a cheese that is so good, it has ruined all other cheeses for me.  This cheese is salty, smooth and mild, and is rolled up into large balls and cut in long pieces when served.  Alfredo made a mistake by letting us taste a few pieces of cheese, because I then became addicted.  All I wanted was to eat the whole ball of cheese, and Alfredo had to babysit me and the cheese ball, so we could have some left for the recipes.

We stuffed the tacos with crisp hibiscus flowers (truth!), avocado, and fresh pico de gallo (If you aren’t familiar with pico de gallo, it’s a fresh salsa with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro).  We also made a shrimp version, with huge, succulent fresh prawns. I was in heaven, and about to take my first bite… until Alfredo instructed us to sprinkle on the finishing touch. Grasshoppers.

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, Kristen Kane

 

Okay, bear with me.  I told myself before the class that I would try anything, and I had to stay true to my word.  Before I took a bite of my grasshopper taco, I cringed and mentally prepared to make a scene, dramatically spit it all out… But, alas.  They were great!  If you had told me they were bacon bits, I would have believed you, polished off 4 tacos, and then asked for seconds.  Roasted grasshoppers are a famous ingredient in Oaxaca, and they are served roasted, salted, and sprinkled on a variety of dishes for a little bit of salty insect pizazz.

We also made homemade salsas, with fresh roasted tomatoes and chiles that we crushed with a mortar and pestle.   The flavors were phenomenal, and made us all second guess the jarred salsa we’re so familiar with in the states… Sorry, El Paso.

For the sopes, we cooked the tortillas a little thicker, (more like pancakes) and pinched grooves into the top to keep the ingredients in place.   Then I got in trouble for eating more cheese.  We sautéed a mixture of onions, tomatoes, and garlic, and then spooned this mixture over the sopes, with a little drizzle of mole.  We sliced a few pieces of Oaxacan cheese over the tops, and then put all of our creations on a big platter and sat down for our feast, complete with fresh hibiscus margaritas.

Photo Credit: Apple Vacations, Kristen Kane, Grasshoppers

 

We couldn’t have been a happier group, and I even bought a container of grasshoppers to bring back with me to the US.  (I haven’t dipped into them yet, but you never know.) I wanted to bring cheese too, but had to draw the line when it came to refrigeration on the flight home.

This experience pushed me far out of my cooking comfort zone.  Our hosts at Café Juanita were amazing teachers, and I would recommend everyone checking out their “Chiles and Chocolate Class.”   I learned to love mole sauce, to be more adventurous with ingredients, how to make my own tortillas, and how to whip up salsa using fresh tomatoes, garlic, and jalapenos.

I also learned that the best way to stop the severe burning in your mouth after eating spicy foods is by drinking milk.

Overall, the destination provided a perfect combination of incredible scenery, warm people, and amazing cuisine.  I felt like I experienced a side of Mexico that few people get to see, and I cherish the experience to this day.  This slice of heaven on the southern coast is the perfect place to truly experience authentic Mexico, while surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty.  So for now, my parting advice to you, if you are lucky enough to visit Huatulco… try the grasshoppers.

I love Huatulco

I love Huatulco.  Say it with me- “wah-TOOL-co.” Nicely done.

Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa

 

Huatulco is a small coastal area, tucked away on the southern coast of Mexico, surrounded by 9 incredible bays that stretch out into the Pacific.  This summer, I discovered this gem of a destination, and have been entranced ever since.  I have two words for you:  Go Now.

I’m a beach kind of girl.  If there is sand and a body of water, I’m there. Palm trees are an added bonus, and rum is a must.  As I packed for my trip to Huatulco, I expected it to be similar to all of my other favorite Mexico destinations.  There would be a long stretch of white beach, unlimited tropical drinks with names like “Banana Mama” and “La Bomba,” and just a stroll away would be authentic restaurants, endless shopping, and exhilarating music echoing through the streets.

But as we flew into Huatulco, I realized that things were going to be a little different.  As the plane descended, I looked to my left to see lush, green mountains rolling up into the clouds.  These are the infamous Sierra Madres.  We don’t have any hills like this in Illinois… we have corn fields. And the world’s largest bottle of Ketchup, in case you are interested.

In the mountains, I saw rivers winding down the mountainside, running through the thick green tangles of rainforest.  I had a moment of anxiety when I wondered if I accidentally got a ticket to Machu Pichu, but it disappeared as I looked out the other side, to the vast Mexican beaches that I know and love.  This was it!  Huatulco.  After we landed, I stepped out into the sunlight and was greeted at the airport by grinning Oaxacans, (“Wa-ha-kens,” locals of the state of Oaxaca, “Wa-ha-kah”).  I knew that I was ready for an incredible adventure.

Secrets Huatulco Resort & Spa

My hotel, Secrets Huatulco, is nestled into one of the southernmost bays of Huatulco.  After gawking over the gorgeous lobby and testing out all of the cool features of my hotel room (rainfall shower, HELLO!), I decided to check out the beach.  I wound my way between the crystal clear pools, thatch-roof cabanas, and the smells of fresh tacos cooking at the poolside restaurant- and discovered one of the most breathtaking Pacific beaches I have ever seen.  The waves were a surfer’s dream, the beach was deep and smooth, and along each side of the bay, craggy cliffs stood against the backdrop of the turquoise pacific.  I stood there admiring the view, and was there for so long that the tide started to come in.  I was almost knocked over by a wave, and had to scurry back up the beach to avoid a mid-afternoon swim.

For the rest of the day, I wandered the property in search of some food and found fresh Marlin ceviche, homemade guacamole and crispy tortilla chips, and my new favorite drink- the Paloma.  The Paloma is a refreshing concoction of grapefruit juice, lime juice, and a splash of tequila and soda water, blended with lots of ice and served with a salted rim.

After that, I ventured off in search of the highest point I could find, in order to get the best view of the bay and surrounding areas.  I discovered this view at the Spa, where one of the best views was (unfortunately) from a treadmill in the glass-walled gym.  I decided that this was a sign that I should exercise (I forgot to mention that I also discovered some Gelato after lunch), so climbed on the treadmill, to work-out, but more to just stare across Conejos bay.  The views were breathtaking, and I made a mental note to spend some extra time down the hallway, to enjoy the pools, waterfalls, and breathtaking views at the spa (photo below for your viewing pleasure).

After my adventurous day, I headed up to my room to indulge in some wine, my Jacuzzi tub, and to take in the beach from my amazing ocean view balcony.  I felt like a princess, even though I later discovered that every room is ocean view.  As I rinsed off (yet again) in my rainfall shower, and crawled under the fresh sheets, I only had a moment to reflect on my incredible day before I drifted off into a mild coma.   I needed a full night’s sleep to prepare for the next day- a day of sightseeing, shopping, and my first wonderful (and mildly disastrous) Oaxacan cooking class.

Stay tuned for my next blog about my trip to Hualtuco….

For now, check out some of my pics!