Monday, January 09, 2012

Leon, the little city that could

We bailed out of Granada fast because we knew we would come back there to take the bus back to Costa Rica.  So yesterday morning we caught a small bus to Managua and then transferred to a collectivo to Leon.  Collectivos can be hell but this was a nice minivan and the driver was a happy guy who drove like the cops were after him all the time.  We stopped for a break midway through the hour and a half drive from Managua to Leon and everyone ordered "quesillos" which are little tortillas filled with mozzerella cheese and onions.  Well, we didn't order them as a big chunk of cheese in the middle of a hot day on a crowded van seemed like a bad call.  But I'll give them a shot next time.
Leon is like a mini Granada with beautiful colonial houses and courtyards and lots of charm.  There's a big university population here and lots of politically left leaning folks so the graffiti and murals around the city are politically charged.  There is one near the square that has a big snake coming out of a basket.  The snake is colored red, white and blue and says CIA at the bottom.  We are trying to decide whether to stay a few days or head straight to the beach...

Ometepe Waterfall and the trip back to the mainland.

The best way to see the island by far is by motorbike.  Angela and i rented "mountain" bikes the first day and they sucked.  I had no brakes, she had no gears, and we still paid $5 each.  The bikes did get us to Ojo de Agua which is a little concrete swimming hole made around a spring.  If you think it's going to be some gorgeous little moss covered spring in the jungle, it's not.  But if you want a place to drink beer on a hot day with lots of laughing and smiling people and go off a rope swing this place is awesome.  Some people are disappointed by the changing rooms and parking lot which makes it feel developed.  Get over that and go swimming, if you rode your crappy bike there you will love it.
Volcano Concepcion
The motorbike we found at a neighbor's house, I handed him my passport and he handed be the bike, no contract, no nothing other than my promise to return it as i got it.  There was a playboy centerfold laminated to the seat which added a touch of class, otherwise the bike was pretty gutless, supposedly a 225 but it did not like hills.  We drove around to the falls at San Ramon on the other side of the south island.  With the bike you can struggle up the first 3km of road, then walk the last km.  The falls are over 500 feet tall and tumble into a shallow pond.  Deep enough to float in but not swim.  Very refreshing in the middle of the jungle on a hot day.  Driving around the island is a great way to get perspective of the area as well.  It is a gorgeous little piece of paradise.  The road is getting longer as I type and an airport is being built so there are changes in the making.  Hard to say how development will affect the place other than adding more gringo property owners and maybe a resort at the Myogalpa end of the island.  Time will tell.
We finally decided to leave by shared taxi from Balgue out to Myogalpa, then back on the ferry and into San Jorge.  The winds are strong this time of year and I think it's worth waiting for the big ferry that hauls cars.  The little passenger ferrys turn into vomit comets and I don't think I want to do that for an hour. 
Our taxi driver in San Jorge convinced us to go all the way to Granada with him so our $2 ride turned into $22 and he made the 70 mile trip in less than an hour.  He delivered us right to our hotel door and we found rooms in Hotel Casa Capricho.  It's a nice little botique hotel with a tiny pool and everything we needed for 2 nights.  It was also next door to Kathy's Waffle House which makes fantastic breakfasts and despite its very gringo name is locally owned and packed with locals throughout the day.

Hiking a Volcano, do's and don'ts

Rush hour on Ometepe
Ometepe Island gets its name from the Nahuatl word that means "two mountains."  There's the big volcano on the larger island called "Concepcion" and the smaller one on the other island called "Maderas."  We decided to hike the smaller one since we were staying on that end of the island.  We found a guide named 'Abel' who was recommended to us through the restaurant owner at Cafe Campestre.  You don't have to have a guide to hike here but it seems like a good idea, the area is covered with trails and it's easy to get lost and the guy was $20 for the day so why not.  Abel turned out to be a great guy with lots of good information and he definitely knew the mountain.  If you're in the area look him up.  We asked him to come up with a circular route so we wouldn't just go up and back and he gave us a fine tour.  We left a bit after 8am from Balgue and hiked up the road to Finca Magdalena.  You have to hike across their coffee plantations at first so we paid a buck and a half for the priveledge.  There were big groups of howler monkeys howlering back and forth in the morning light and we watched a little howler crawl all over its mom and then on to the rest of the family.  For little monkeys they make one hell of a racket.  After about one hour we stopped to eat some breakfast burritos that Cafe Campestre had made for us the night before.  It was a needed burst of energy.  Maderas is covered in jungle and rock all the way to the top so you never really get to an outstanding viewpoint and the terrain is like a 4 hour stairmaster covered in 4 inches of axle grease.  Technically it's not a difficult climb but it does kick your butt.  Once we got to the top you have to hike another 20 minutes into the caldera.  This part is so steep you will need to go into full on spider monkey mode and there are chunks of rope in some places that you can grab for support but it's still not that bad and certainly not a "roped climb" as some guide books might say.  If it's a clear day the caldera bottom is a gorgeous meadow with a little lake.  We were lucky to have clear weather and we ate another burrito lakeside.  It was howling wind the whole time though so i didn't go swimming.  It took us another 3 hours to get down being very careful not to slip and fall in the mud and trying not to step on the leaf cutter ants that travel in long lines beside and along the trail.  We came out of the jungle overlooking the village of Santa Cruz and Concepcion which was a great viewpoint and then we walked through several fields of plantains before we hit the road.  A few beers and advil later and we were good to go.  If you do this hike you definitely need 1.5 to 2 liters of water per person, some breakfast burritos, and shoes that can handle mud.  I wore my running shoes and they will never be the same.  If you go with a guide try to find Abel and if you go alone take a gps or compass, if it fogs in you won't be able to see 6 feet in front of you.  There are vultures in the area for a reason people.

Inside the caldera of Volcanoe Maderas

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua

We made it to Ometepe Island and spent last night at Finca Magdalena.  It was good to leave San Juan del Sur as the surf was flattening out, the town was exhausted from New Years festivities and we had eaten at every restaurant.  The last morning we were there I got up early and went diving with the neighbor, he's a 22 year old kid who just seems to surf and go diving and i think his name was Samba.  He took me on a short hike up and over a hill to the east of town and down into a small, secluded beach area.  We snorkelled around looking for octopus and lobster.  After about half an hour we found some in a large bouldered area.  We had to dive down about 20 feet, then Samba would hook them with an aluminum spike he had made.  The lobster would come sailing out of the rock crevice and then he would catch it like he had been tossed a baseball.  If he didn't catch it in time the lobster would engage its tail and take off at an amazing rate of speed and hide in the rocks again.  Samba new all the holes and exits thoughand in a few minutes he caught 4 lobster.  We had been in the water over an hour at that point so we headed back to the hostel and grilled them immediately.  no butter or anything, and they were delicious.  Then Ang and i caught a collectivo taxi to Rivas and then another taxi in Rivas to San jorge where we caught a ferry to Ometepe.  The ferry took about an hour and was loaded to the gills with cars, produce, motorbikes and gringos.  I ended up sitting between a German and an Austrian on the way over.  Ther German was on a 4-week trip across Nicaragua, Costa Rica and ending in Panama and he had every day planned out on a spreadsheet.  Wahnsinn.  When we got to ometepe the boat was swarmed by kids who would crawl up the side and then dive off into the muddy waters of lake Nicaragua.  As we left the boat a swarm of taxi drivers and hotel owners met us, all talking at once while laborers staggered past us with the imported bags of produce.  We finally agreed to cross the island wiht a local who looked like a Hawaiian islander, dark flowing hair and the build of a hard working farmer.  He said he had a banana farm in addition to his taxi services.  Two Austrians from the boat joined us to split the cab fare.  We took off hurtling across the island on its newly paved road enroute to Balgue about 45 km away.  The taxi driver said the island is 95% born and raised islanders and he reckoned it was the safest place in all of Central America.  To our left was the volcano Concepcion, the top was shrouded in smoke and steam but it hasn't erupted for 50 years.

Concepcion, Ometepe Island

We dodged cows, horses, buses and bicycles in the 80 minute journey.  We were unable to dodge one dog though and we drove right over the top of him, you could hear him running underneath the truck, which was a beat up Landcruiser, and then he shot out the side and ran off into the woods.  This was too much for the Austrian couple who started screaming Stop! We have to see if he's ok!  The taxi driver just continued on until the woman yelled Estupido!  The taxi driver hit his brakes, stopped the car and in Spanish told them to get out, he wasn't stuped, the dog was.  i translated into German for them and said you can get out here or appologize to the driver.  Looking at the endless jungle in all directions they suddenly decided he wasn't so estupido and we continued on, but the driver was chapped.  We dropped the couple off and he asked what country they were from, I told him and feel quite certain Austrians and perhaps anyone speaking German will never ride in his cab again.
The last 6 kilometers of road were rocked and rutted and gave us a taste of what the road must have been like 8 years ago, before it was paved.  The driver said it used to take an entire day to crawl across the island.  Finca magdalena looks like an old plantation farm from south Carolina.  Big covered porches and tiny little rooms surrounded by jungle.  We're at the base of Maderas volcano which is so extinct there's a lake at the top, but I still don't trust it.  As dusk settled in we walked down the road to a restaraunt we had heard about, Cafe Campestre, and tucked into a delicious meat lasagna and a chicken pasta.  Amazing food and the salad was all grown on the island.  As the sun set the howler monkeys began to scream from the tree tops and I was thankful for my feeble little headlamp, and that they didn't throw their poo at us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Surf's Up in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

We have been surfing hard in this little paradise and slowly building our surfing skills.  I don't vomit saltwater and sand at the end of each session which means I'm improving.  We have surfed at Remanso Beach and Maderas Beach and both have some good beginner waves.  We have been surfing with Arenas Caliente and they are a good group of guys.  Board rental and a pickup truck ride to the beach and back is $13 for the whole day, can't beat that.  The other day I went out at 5am, surfed until 9, then had breakfast, and went out again at 11 until 5p.  It was great, hit two different beaches and each one has little food stands where you can get $1 beers and quesadillas and stuff.  The only drawback to surfing here and now is that it's peak season so the waters are full of Gringos, and like me, they don't know what they are doing.  Many of them have longboards in excess of 9' long.  When one of these comes out of a wave at you it's good.  So not only do i have to watch what i'm doing, I have to watch what everyone esle is doing.  But so far no major contusions are clashes with other surfers. 

Surfboad racks are for wimps.

There are also some good Yoga studios here so we can get the kinks out at the end of a hard day.  Lots of great food here too, we frequent the Barrio Cafe for good coffee and breakfasts, the Black Whale for $1 mojitos at happy hour and it's also the home of the Black Whale monster burger that i ate the other night.  It was massive. 
I have also discovered the 'michelada' which is the illegitimate child of a beer and a bloody mary, thirst quenching and delicious and makes cheep beer very palatable.
El Colibri is the best place we have found though and tops all others.  They serve Mediterranean food in a cozy garden that is an oasis of tranquility.  I had the chicken curry the other night and it was off the charts.  They also sell jugs of Sangria that will keep you smiling.  Across from them is Alladins where you'll find Jed serving up strong coffee and cinnamon rolls in the morning.  Jed has a colorful work history and will happily sit and tell you about the litany of highrollers, sheiks, and shananegans he has worked for all over the world.  He has good insight to Nica culture as well.  We are currently staying at Buena Onda Backpackers built by a frenchman in the eastern barrio of San Juan.  It has a great view of the bay and wonderful breezes at night but the barking dogs and crowing roosters and squeeling pigs make sleep at night rather difficult.  Best thing to do is exhaust yourself surfing and playing in the sun so you don't notice.  They do tend to quiet down around 4am though.

We shall post up here until next Monday, Jan 2 and then head for Isla de Ometepe, a volcanic protrusion in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  There we shall rent a motorbike, circumnavigate the island and climb a few volcanoes. 
Poaching pooltime at Pelican Eyes Resort

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The border crossing was a muddy and confusing struggle as hoardes of Nicas streamed across from Costa Rica for the holidays.  During the war here in Nica many locals fled to Costa Rica so returning over the holidays is the thing to do.  We stoood in line for about an hour and walking across the border took awhile as well since it's quite a ways.  We say tractor trailers lined up for miles and i imagine some will wait in line for the better part of a week.  Crazy.  You have to pay $12 per person to enter Nica and you have to buy your departure paperwork from people standing around for $1.  It looks dodgy but everyone was doing it so we went with the system.  Then a "cab driver" drove us to San Juan del Sur for $25.  It was really just an old guy in a beat up car with a lot of silver in his teeth.  He was nice though and told us about the area and the economy as we drove.  He reckoned Bush was better for Nica than Obama as US aid has dropped off with the new administration.  I told him we gots wars to pay for now so he'll have to get in line, maybe sell a tooth.  With much grinding of gears and gagging diesel smoke he got us to the tropical beach paradase of San Juan del Sur.  We ended up staying at Casa de las Olas which is a magical place on top of the hills overlooking the area.  Unfortunately the owners are filling the place with their own family over the holidays so we only got to stay 2 nights and then we moved into town and are now at Buena Onda Backpackers.  It's nice and brand new but the dogs in the hood bark from 2-4 am nonstop.  Tonight I will find out who they are and give them steak laced with Benadryl.  If that doesn't work I shall be forced to club them like baby seals.  I gots to get my 40 winks.
Days here are spent running, swimming and surfing.  Overlooking the bay is a 40' stone Jesus so we run up to him each day, he doesn't say much but his outstretched hand is comforting and the wind never messes his concrete hair.  Food in this town is excellent as will, fresh fish, stone oven pizzas, and great burritos.  The rainy season has held on a bit longer this year but it's hot rain and should let up any day now.
We will hunker down here through the New Year then head for the Atlantic Coast and the Carribean, maybe, have to see what we can work out.
Feliz Navidad amigos!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tamarindo - surf, sand and cervezas

i met Angela at the airport on Tuesday and we jumped on a city bus to downtown San jose, 5 minutes later the driver cut a corner too sharp and we scraped the length of another bus.  There was a terrible screaming of metal but in the end there wasn't much damage.  The two drivers got out, took a look, shrugged, and decided to keep on going.  Hostel Bekuo turned out to be a great place and i highly recommend it, very friendly vibe and the owner Brian made a point of making sure everyone felt welcome.
We caught a bus to Tamarindo the next day at 11:30am.  The ticket lady said it would take 5 hours but it was closer to 7 and a half.  The bus was comfortable and air conditioned but 7 hours is an eternity.  The trip cost $10 each so the price was right.  The bus also carried packages so the closer we got to our destination the more we stopped.  During the last half hour two guys got on the bus and sat down in front of us, then got up and sat behind us, then stood for awhile.  It was pretty suspicios so I went on alert.  A few minutes later i watched my bag start to scoot along under the seat towards the guy in front of me, i grabbed it and pulled it back and put it in my lap.  He sat up quickly and pretended he hadn't been doing anything.  There was an american to our left and i told him to watch his stuff.  The bus ride finally came to an end and we got off.  The two guys boxed the American in and dropped some stuff on the floor in a classic distract and grab.  He saw it coming though and just pushed past them and got off the bus with everything intact.  They were big guys so we all just took off, jumped in a cab and went to the nearest hostile.
Tamarindo Beach at Sunset
Tamarindo has a bit of an identity crisis.  it is half hippy surfer town and half old people/expat community with a sprinkling of rich hotels.  Food in the restaraunts and bars is the same price as the states, more in some cases, but that's Costa Rica, not just Tamarindo.  The beach is nice and at the end there is an estuary with Caimans swimming in it so it's worth the $1 to pay a fisherman to take you across in his boat.  Apparently people do get bit.  on the other side is playa Grande and it is very Grande, about 2 miles long with perhaps 10 people along the whole stretch.  There are hotels stuck back in the jungle and parts of the area are national park.  We would have moved to playa Grande but there aren't too many food options and getting in and out is an expensive cab ride.  The accomodations are incredible though with far more charm than Tamarindo.
We are currently staying at la Botella de leche, which has a black and white cow motif.  not as bad as it sounds and the rooms are clean.  Lots of Argentinians own property down here and the owner is a 400 year old woman who is very nice.  Her son runs la Oveta Negra just down the street which is also a big surf hangout.  he either partys a lot or likes to pour glass shards in his eyes because they are blood shot 24/7.
We have spent our time here walking and running the beaches, eating some nice local fish dishes, and fantasizing about how much cheaper Nicaragua will be. 
Tomorrow we tackle a string of buses that will hopefully end in a successful border crossing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Touchdown in San Jose, Costa Rica

Rain is pouring down outside but it's 70F rain, in December, which is nice.  I landed a few hours ago in San jose, Costa Rica and caught a taxi to a nice little hostel called Bekuo, no idea what that means.  Getting past the hoards of taxi drivers was easy as i pointed to the first one i saw and 20 minutes later i pulled right up to the place.  (incidentally the shift key for my left hand no longer works on this keyboard so you will notice a lack of uppercase letters in some instances.  i apologize to all you english teachers out there)  The taxi driver filled me in on the local economy, pointed out local landmarks, and was generally a very decent chap.
So i don't have much to report at this point. First impression is good, San jose doesn't look like much but it seems to be billed as a crossroads so we'll figure out where we're headed next and get out of here quick.  This hostel is clean, quiet and has wifi so me likey.
Due to ticketing constraints Angela will not join me until tomorrow so i will navigate the bus situation to meet her at the airport, should be fun.  off to sleep now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beers, burritos and lots of rain in Tunco Beach, el Salvador

We're in el Salvador, safe and sound in Tunco Lodge in a little town called el Tunco.  We drove down from Antigua, 6 hours in a minibus, with just 2 other people so it was very comfortable but absolutely torrential rain.  There were times we had to slow down because there was so much rain on the road.  A few mudslides and missing bridges but nothing major.  All the bad spots have detours along rutted country roads with cavernous potholes.
Tunco Beach, el Salvador
The border looked like a scene from a zombie trucker movie with tractor trailers backed up for a good mile.  I guess the rain and detours slowed everybody up and no one was moving.  Our driver detoured us through back yards and driveways until we were past most of the truckers, then we jumped out of the van, flashed our passports at the border shack and went on our way.
I'm lying in a hammock as I write, overlooking the pool and a forest of palm trees.  Dinner was a fat burrito and a beer for $4, we watched the waves pound the beach during sunset as an appetizer.  There is just enough development here to keep things lively, but not too much.  Tunco Lodge is barely one year old and apparently 3 years ago this place wasn't even on the map.
When we checked out the waves today they looked pretty damn big and the river that dumps into the ocean has turned the water a thick milk chocolate brown.  I think we'll have to head down the beach a bit so we aren't pounded into the sand. 
Hotel Tunco Lodge
For now the view from the hammock is just fine.