Surf El Salvador

So said the T-Shirt on Val Kilmers character in Real Genius (or was it surf Nicaragua? Oh well). So I decided to take him up on the idea. Getting into El Salvador was almost too easy. We walked across the border. Looking for the usual immigrations department, forms, fees, etc. On the way across we found a guardhouse, about like what youd find back home for a gated community. Only not as nice of course. The lone guard flagged us down as we were ambling past and asked to see our passports. We had them in hand already and passed them over. He glanced at them and smiled and said welcome to El Salvador. Just like that. No stamps, no forms, no where are you going/what do you do/why are you here questions. Just poof, were in El Salvador.

Since that was too easy, I asked where we went next. He said nowhere, that was it, were here. So I wandered around for awhile in spite of what he said, not willing to accept that it was really that easy. Found a line I could wait in for awhile (that made me feel better) and finally come up to the front, handed over my passports dutifully and the person looked perplexed and said well didnt you see the guard out there? I said, |uh, yes and she said well didnt he look at your passports already? I said, uh, yes and so she handed my passports back and said youre in El Salvador. Have fun!

Alright! Thats how a border crossing SHOULD be! That really set the tone for El Salvador in general. Nice people, no hassles, cheap prices, good- no, great food. From the border we walked a little ways in and found a money changer, who offered to change our Honduran lempira into dollars. After negotiating a rate I said no, I wanted Salvadoran money. He said dollars IS Salvadoran money. I was skeptical but took the dollars. Sure enough, every price I saw was in dollars so after an hour or two I conceded that El Salvador used the dollar. We were thankful for a reprieve from the constant recalculation of prices based on 18 to the dollar, 20 to the dollar, 550 to the dollar, and liked to just see a price and know Oh that IS dollars!

So then we caught a bus to San Salvador, spent a few hours wandering through the market eating street food. Delicious street food. Something called an Empanada that was basically bananas and cream mixed up and deep fried. Two the size of half an avocado for a quarter. Basically everything in El Salvador was a quarter. And I saw more fruit for sale on buses as snack food than anywhere else in central america. Children came on board at every stop selling watermelon, mango, papaya, pinapple, all for about a half-pound for a quarter. We bought a pound and a half of small, delicious, local strawberries for a dollar. Then we discovered pupusas.

A pupusa is basically a stuffed tortilla. They take fresh cornmeal and wrap it around beans, cheese, squash, meat, whatever and fry them on a griddle. Sell them for about a quarter each – and they are the size of a pancake. Two are quite filling. Plus, they come with homemade sauerkraut called repollo, which piled on top with salsa makes a good meal for about 50 cents. They are uniquely Salvadoran although the repollo is common in Nicaragua and Honduras.

As I said in the previous post, Salvadorans are very helpful. When I made it known to the driver of the bus that I was headed to Playa Sunzal, a few minutes later half the people on the bus were telling me Sunzal, Sunzal aqui! and making sure I got off where I was supposed to. This happened several times.

We found a nice hotel a few hundred feet from the beach, that came with free internet, ping pong, pool table, darts, kitchen and was a very nice relaxing place to spend the weekend.

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If you look at the rock on the left, from some angles it looks like an old sailor. Sunday morning I took some surfing lessons – 14$ for an hour with a board rental for the day. Unfortunately, the surf was so far away and I was so out of shape for paddling I could only catch two waves.

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Equally unfortunately, because of my distance from shore and the fact that I was not the only one wearing a red shirt, Crystal repeatedly took pictures of the wrong surfer riding the waves. But here I am in this one. No, Im not the cool one riding the wave. But if you look to the right, there is a black blob. Thats the top of my head. Hang ten, dudes!

I found someone juggling on the beach, so I juggled with them for awhile. Then that attracted a third juggler, and we set up a ball passing pattern with 3. No videos of that unfortunately, but it was a lot of fun. We found some tamales in La Libertad for 20 cents each, took 10 to go, but two each filled us up.

Next morning we were up to go to Guatemala at 5:30. We wanted to make some oatmeal in the kitchen before we left, but found it didnt open until 6 so we waited. Then we caught the bus ride, which was remarkably uneventful except for the movie Titanic. Which is also remarkably uneventful, and would have been totally unwatchable had it not been dubbed in Spanish which made it just barely interesting – no offense to the millions of teenage girls who made this movie gross more than Star Wars.

But we finally got our passport stamped at the border to Guatemala, although it was still very easy to cross the border. From there we went to Antigua, which you will see next post

Posted on February 25th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under El Salvador | No Comments »

Copan – Macaws and Deadly Ballgames

So after getting over my rapturous delight at finding real, cheap, food again – island food was getting old – we went to Copan Ruinas, the best preserved site in Honduras for seeing ruins. On our way, we stopped at the local market. As usual, I almost missed it – a tiny hole in the wall 5 feet wide lined with fruit enticed me in, then I found myself inside this gigantic flat space filled with booths selling all sorts of food and fruits. We had Tilapia and soup and tortillas for about 1.50$, bought a pineapple for 90 cents, then went to the ruins, just outside town.

The ruins were a bit pricy, 15$ each for entry, plus for once I decided to splurge on a guide since I would have had no idea what I was seeing. It was 25$ extra for a guide for 1.5 hours. It was worth it though.

About Copan.. what can I say. It was a well preserved, even opulent, pile of rocks which a great many peons spent millions of manhours carving and building for the enjoyment of a privileged few hundred people, and the honor of a few hundred pagan gods. It was impressive, yes, but I dunno. You can find plenty of pictures of the statues and carvings and things like that on the net if that sort of thing interests you more than me.

Anyway, they had some beautiful scarlet macaws at the entry to the park

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Along with some Agoutis, I think they are called

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One interesting anecdote about Copan, is that this complex was built to have a gigantic ampitheater to watch a ball game played with a rubber ball weighing about 8 pounds. No hands or feet were allowed to touch the ball, and bouncing that off your head HAD to hurt.

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This is the playing field, and the object was to touch one of the 6 goals on the sides of the field with the ball. But this game had an added twist – the winner got to be the next human sacrifice! (Should we really call him the winner? I mean, really??) Anyway, only the best was allowed to be offered to the gods, which was done on this altar here:

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Again, I have to wonder if anyone ever took a dive for the team I can imagine a comedy of players trying to under-play the others, trying to lose at least, thats what *I* would have been trying to do professional sports just doesnt have a future in a society like that.

Anyway, we got back to the actual town and it was about 4:30. We didnt want to stay here for the night, but I didnt really care where we went as long as it was south or west, towards El Salvador or Guatemala. So we walked through town, asking people, and everyone said the last bus had left already, but maybe THAT place would have a bus still after playing this game for about 30 minutes, we finally found a FULL collective taxi headed in what I hoped was the right direction. Actually, I didnt know where it was going but the road headed towards where I wanted to go in either direction, so I figured I couldnt lose.

Some people on the collective told me where to go next, so after a few more bus changes and several hours later we wound up at the border to El Salvador at about 11pm. Unfortunately, most of the hotels in town were full. One that wasnt was a bit expensive, so as I was walking around looking for more hotels, a local saw us and decided to help us. He spoke English somewhat and had lived in Houston for awhile.

Well, he told us this certain hotel had rooms and he had a reservation there and they would let us in. I had already asked there and they said they were full, and told him this, but he insisted he could work it out, maybe a bribe was all we needed he said. I found the situation quite interesting so I decided to play it out and see what happened. Well, he banged on the door, the hotel clerk came out andsaid they were full. He said he had a reservation, the clerk said he didnt, he said he did, then he said some people in the hotel knew him and could vouch for him, so about 15 minutes went by with the guy going back and forth into the hotel looking for people to vouch for this guy on the street. I found it all quite amusing, since I knew I had at least one option for beds and sincerely appreciated this guys help for us strangers.

Well, to make a long story short, (and you really had to be there to appreciate it) he finally said there were no rooms, but that his wife was in his room there and that we could take one bed and he could take the other with his wife. I explained to him that I appreciated his overwhelming kindness, but that we would seek out other options. He said that the town got unsafe later at night and we needed a place to sleep off the street and I told him again that the other place had beds and that we would go there, but if it was full we would come back and perhaps take him up on his offer. We finally agreed that if we didnt come back in two minutes, it would be a sign that all was well with us. Thanked him again, and left and got beds in the other hotel.

It was just an example of how much out of their way people will go here to help complete strangers. I doubt that would have happened in my own country, but we have met this sort of behavior all the time here. Earlier that same day a local walked 3 blocks out of his way after dark to make sure we found the bus station to the next town alright and safely.

But I think of all the countries, El Salvadorans were the happiest, nicest, most helpful, and healthiest.  It was my favorite country, and youll hear about it next post

Posted on February 22nd, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Honduras | No Comments »

Diving, Snorkeling and Eating In Utila

Upon arriving at Utila we were bombarded by people trying to get us to go to their dive shops. There are more dive shops on Utila than people. So we just put our heads down and ¨dived¨ through the crowd (so to speak) and got away from the hubbub. We wandered around town for awhile, noted that the prices were back up to Costa Rican equivalents, meaning 5$ a plate for food. Rooms were cheaper though. We were hungry, so we wanted to find something light. We were looking for Batidos, called Licuados here, which are basically blended fruit and milk. I asked about a dozen places, none of which had any. They said they were out of fruit. Finally I found a place that still offered Licuados, so I asked what type they had. They said Banana. I said ok, we´ll take one. We did, liked it, wanted another, so I asked for a second. He said he couldn´t, we ate the last banana. So apparently, since no other place had any, we ate the last banana on the island. Go us!

Bellies less empty, we set about finding a dive shop. All of them were basically the same price and offered the exact same item (an open water certification) and so we were left to decide based on how we liked a place. After trying every place in town, we settled on BICD, Bay Islands College of Diving. The instructors were upbeat, fun, and didn´t ooze that ¨hey dude, ain´t weed great!¨ vibe that some of the other shops did. Total cost was 271$ and that included 3 nights of room rental and 2 free fun dives after the course was finished. Plus, they offered free internet for students!

We walked down to the beach on Utila, which isn´t much of a beach for an island, where they had a slackline set up. Which was considerably harder than it looked. It is basically a tie-down strap put between two trees and stretched tight. So it is a poor man´s tightrope. They said I did quite well for a beginner, but to be honest that wasn´t so great.

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Later we had a ¨taco¨ in a ¨mexican¨ restaurant. It cost about 5$, and we were somewhat shocked to receive a plate with a cupful of chicken in the middle and chips stacked around the outside. I explained to them we ordered a taco, not ¨that¨. The menu specifically said it was ¨two tortillas deep fried with chicken¨. I pointed this out, and he explained that this used to BE two tortillas and they had been cut and deep fried into chips. And that this WAS a taco. I explained to him that this was NOT a taco, but that I would eat it. It actually didn´t taste bad, but it was a small portion for the price. This is a recurring theme on Utila.

Another recurring theme is that everyone on Utila quotes prices in dollars. And require payment in dollars, or in a very bad exchange rate for Lempiras, the local currency. But none of the banks or ATMs on Utila give out dollars.  So where do the dollars go? I never figured out, but bring dollars to Utila!

That said, if you don´t have dollars, you can go to the ATM and pull out money. In Lempira, of course. Then go down the street to Jose´s money changing shack (His name isn´t Jose, but I forget what it was) (and seriously, it was a shack!) and he gives a pretty fair exchange rate and has a gigantic wad of dollars under his falling apart desk. Unlocked of course. Sometimes things make little sense to me here, but I guess that is part of the experience of traveling :)

When we first walked into Utila, we saw a sign that said Indian Wok Restaurant. And I, being a fan of Indian food, promised myself wed eat there before we left. So that night I tried to find it again. Now mind you, Utila has 2 real streets, that run at 90 degree angles to each other, and a few alleys around these streets. You CANNOT get lost. And we KNEW wed seen this on Main Street. So we walked back and forth. Looking for it. Again and again. We just couldnt find it! We asked people, and they pointed us in a certain direction, and it wasnt there. We asked others, and it wasnt where they said either. 3 days we walked up and down this street on various errands and never saw it. Finally, when we had all but given up, I went on one last quest to find it. After sorting through the various directions, talking with the few people who seemed to have heard of it, I finally traced it to a certain place. I went next door and asked them if they knew of the Indian Wok. They said no, theyd never heard of it. I went back around and finally found a tiny building by a pier behind another building, that had no sign, where they were cooking. Turns out it was the Wok. They had a TINY sign that the put out only when they were actually open, which was only about 4 days a week from 6:30 till 11 pm. And they SERIOUSLY need to work on their advertising, is all I have to say.

So to digress a bit, while Crystal was getting certified as a diver (I have been for some years now) I had some time on my hands so I wanted to go get some dives in while I could. The only boat leaving when I wanted to go was from Parrot Divers. I didn´t like the outfit very much, but it was ok. Cost 52$ for two-tank dives. You can tell how long it´s been since I dove with a wetsuit since I accidentally put my suit on backwards. (Hey, the full-length body zipper is easier to pull up in the front!)

The dives were ok. I still am not too impressed with diving. I guess I´ve never been in the right place at the right time. Snorkeling is always so much better it seems. But I was glad when they were over. The next day I had a full day while Crystal was getting certified (It is a 3-4 day process).

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 So I noticed that they had three computers, but only one was turned on. I enquired why, and was told that the others didn´t work. Ah-hah! Something to amuse myself.

Having certain skills in the broken computer department, I volunteered to take a look at them. They said it was no use, someone had looked at them and said it was hopelessly broken. Ah-hah! A challenge! So they told me to knock myself out. 20 minutes later I had, to quote one of the instructors ¨three computers worth of parts spread out all over the floor¨. A swiss army knife was my only tool. This is how the computer looked when I started:

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So you can see, it needed help.  Well, I fiddled with it for awhile and finally got one of them up and running. Then I made the other one run faster (it was terribly bogged down with cookies and background programs and the like).

I was just about done when another instructor comes over and says he has a mini laptop that has died. Apparently, his antivirus program had deleted user32.dll. Which is, apparently, a file that windows considers important. So his computer was a nice paperweight for now. But it was so small it had no CD drive, so the only options were a network or a USB boot. Never having done either, it took me most of the day to work out a decent USB boot system. It was so hard and took so long that by the time I was done, he was practically begging me to give up. Hah!

Naturally, I did eventually get it working at about dark. The next day I decided to go diving with Crystal and BICD decided to award me 2 free dives in exchange for services rendered. So not only did I get to have fun, but I got paid for it!

These dives were significantly better. People make a big difference in such things, and the people at BICD were the best. Kinda like a disfunctional family. That night we ate at the Indian Wok, and had Garbanzo Curry, and Curried Hummus. Both of which are recipes I will be working on duplicating when I get home.

Next morning we headed for Jewel Key, a tiny island off Utila that was entirely built into a town.  To get there we took a water taxi, which was actually a 12-foot boat completely filled with propane tanks and 8 people. The boat rode so low in the water that it was in considerable danger of swamping several times. Plus the waves were rather high that day, so we actually surfed – in the boat – to the island. It was quite fun!

We were never more than 50 yards from shore though, and we passed about 20 dive boats on the way. I commented to the others that if we WERE going to get shipwrecked, then doing it surrounded by literally hundreds of rescue divers was probably a good place to have it happen!

And the driver of the boat (err, captain) didn´t charge us for the ride. Which was cool. We walked through the small key/town and tried a local specialty – fish burgers. I was not impressed. But interestingly, prices on Jewel Key were LESS than Utila. I get that everything on Utila has to be shipped in from the mainland. So it´s more expensive, OK, I understand. But why does ANOTHER boat trip to an even MORE isolated island make prices 30% less?? It hurt my head, so I tried not to think about it much.

Next morning we rented fins (we had been carrying snorkels since Costa Rica without using them) and took a water taxi to an even SMALLER island called water key. Which had some good snorkeling, as you can see:

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Literally thousands and thousands of minnows, it was like swimming through minnow snow.

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After that, we headed back to Utila. Checked my internet, and in responding to Emails ALMOST missed the last boat back to the mainland. Seriously, it was pulling away from the dock as I was running up. Crystal had gone ahead and was trying to get them to wait for me and they didn´t want to. When I made it evident I was willing to jump onto the receding boat, they caved in and let me on. I had already paid the exorbitant 25$ pp (each way!) fare. I WAS getting on!

Anyway. I didn´t really like Utila that much. It was hard to find good food that wasn´t white flour based. Street food was pretty scarce and restaurants were pretty expensive and portions were small. It was noisy on the weekends and it was just not too nice. I didn´t think. Not to mention the streets were about 10´ wide and was shared by trucks, mopeds, people, and bikes. There was a constant danger of being run over by something from one direction or another.  So I was SO relieved to get back to the mainland and have some REAL food. Tamales, Batidos, Soup, and affordable again!

Next we headed to Copan. Don´t touch that dial! (So to speak!)

Posted on February 20th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Honduras | No Comments »

Granada to Utila

So we got to Granada next, which was nice enough, but I wasn´t that impressed. Just another big town. We did find some unique foods – like fried cheese with honey on top. Which was not as good as it sounds. And we found a food I´d been craving for a year, ever since Ecuador Humitas! Well, they call them something different here, but they´re the same thing. Young corn ground up, stuffed in a banana leaf and made into a tamale. They are sweet (naturally, without sweeteners), and absolutely delicious. They are also a decidedly messy food, since they get everywhere. But it´s worth it!

After that we caught a bus to Masaya, intending to wake up and go to the Volcano there in the morning. We got off the bus too early in Masaya however, which was a much larger town than I had thought, so we had to wander ¨6 blocks¨ into the center of town to find hotels. It was closer to 2 miles, after dark in a strange town, but it was nice anyway I got to eat more street food, which is my number-1 favorite thing to do in Central America. This time fried potato cakes with sauerkraut on top!

So we finally found a hotel and next morning we were up at 7 to go to the volcano. Negotiated an appropriate price with the taxi, got there, only to find out it didn´t open for another hour yet. (Who knew volcanos closed at night??) so anyway, we didn´t want to wait so we skipped Masaya and went on to Managua. From there after finding a bus in yet another hectic bus station, we headed for the Honduran border. But first, the bus had to cruise through the local market, very slowly, trying to find more passengers. This made me unbearably hungry by tempting me with food on all sides, so I hopped out to go buy food. This freaked Crystal out, who stayed behind, but I knew what I was doing. Really! So I found some more Humitas and hopped back on the bus just in time and this way I didn´t have to ride hungry!

At the border, we were disappointed to find that they didn´t stamp our passports. But they did give me a FREE Honduras map (after I paid them 7$ to let me into their country) hey, maybe the map wasn´t free?

Anyway, I did learn a lesson here that I already knew, but this helped to cement it. That lesson is, always agree on a price firmly up front before letting anyone do anything for you. See, this is a rather long walk across the border here, and we were tired, so these tricycle taxis showed up to take us across. I asked how much, and he said ¨a small tip only¨ so I left it at that. Big mistake. They took us across the border, guided us through immigration, not that we really needed any guiding, it was a snap, and then they asked for their tip. So I gave them 3$ for the both of them. They had a hissy fit and demanded 20$. For a 30 minute ride. I said not a chance and offered them 4. They demanded 15 and were both screaming at me and quite a crowd had gathered. So I offered 5, and they were protesting and demanding 10. What I should have done at this point was, instead of offering more money, start offering less. Less or nothing. That would have solved the problem.

Anyway, I think I wound up paying them 10$ to make them go away. Then the tension broke and the locals all started laughing. One of them who wasn´t laughing pulled me aside and told me to always agree on a price before hand because I had just been fleeced. He said these guys had earned about 50 cents and I´d given them 10 dollars. He was quite angry at them. Oh well. I learned the lesson and so I consider it money well spent.  So then we caught a collectivo, (shared taxi-bus), which is always cramped and overcrowded. Then we caught a real bus to Tegucigalpa, spent the night there (it was raining, so it wasn´t a very nice impression the town left) .

Catching a bus in Latin America is always interesting. The buses hire hawkers to go out and pull you in from the street to their bus/ticket window/office. And these hawkers will lie and do anything they have to do to get you to their bus. They´ll tell you the other buses leave later, are slower, are broken – even when the other bus hawkers are right there, telling you that these buses have bad seats and stink, then they start cussing at each other, it´s quite an experience. I generally assume both are lying and ignore them and find my own way if possible.

As we left Tegucigalpa the next morning we passed through a market, so I leaned out the window and bought some more humitas from a lady on the street. Just asked for them and she ran up the bus window as it was pulling away and I gave her the money. Like a dollar for 4 huge humitas.

After we got to San Pedro Sula, we saw our first real bus station. Up until now they had all been, even in the cities, scattered over several blocks with independent stations. But in SPS they had a real, huge, bus terminal where all the buses stopped. Which made it much easier to find your connection. We stopped there for awhile and had lunch, which was nachos and mondongo. Mondongo, for the uninformed, is essentially beef gut soup. It was better than it sounds. Gigantic bowl for 2$ too.

Then we took a bus to La Ceiba, where the ferry leaves for Utila. Had plantain french fries for dinner, with fried chicken. I ordered one, but he understood one for each of us, so we got two. Then I tried to get a to-go box for the one I hadn´t eaten and he put in an order for a third one. Luckily I stopped him before he got it made and explained that no, I JUST wanted a box, not another meal!

It was still raining the next morning, and we had heard the boat left at 9 am. So we were up early because the taxi drivers told us the bus system was very hard to navigate. I was skeptical, but I wanted to make sure we didn´t miss it, so at 7am we started walking towards the bus stop. Found it and in a half hour we were at the boat dock. So it wasn´t that hard after all, it was yet another taxi driver lie after all, us taking the bus cost him a 5 dollar fare!

As it happened, the boat wasn´t scheduled to leave until 9:30. As it happened, it was late and didn´t leave until 10:30. So we had 3 hours to wait. The ticket counter had one extremely slow woman taking the tickets, and at least a 150 people in line, so it took about 2 of those hours just to get everyone a ticket.

Then, as the boat loaded, they loaded the bags separately and put them in a dry hold. So most of the people finally got on, and then as we were pulling away from the dock, there were about 10 people who the boat refused to let on. They said it was full. But they already had stowed their bags on the boat, and they had bought tickets! So of course the people started raising a stink and eventually they consented to let them ride.

The boat ride over was extremely rough. A large percentage of people got sea sick. I would have loved to have the dramamine concession on that boat. I of course thought it was quite fun. Some of the swells were at least 15´ tall and the boat had quite a bounce when it dropped to the bottom. Most of the boat was wrapped in a plastic cover to keep the passengers dry, and it was quite a large boat. However, there was space outside the plastic in the bow of the boat for passengers to ride, and I knew the bouncing was worst on the front of the boat, and naturally that is where I wanted to be.

It was rather cold this morning, and as I said, somewhat rainy. And with these waves, we were constantly drenched while being bounced. For about an hour. And I mean, really soaked. I have a picture of one of the waves hitting us, but I can´t upload it right now. But it was quite an exhilirating ride. When I got off I had been soaked so many times that I had salt caked on my skin. And that brings us to Utila, where we spent nearly a week, and that will be the next entry

Posted on February 15th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Honduras, Nicaragua | No Comments »

Ometepe, Nicaragua

So on entering Nicaragua we had to pay 7$, some sort of an entry tax or something. It was a rather long walk across a bridge, and they really didnt have things signed well, so we basically followed the flow of people. They had a huge line, and people kept cutting in at the very front. But we didnt really have to be anywhere, so anyway. After getting out of immigration, we were looking for a bus to Rivas, Nicaragua. One bus (the big, expensive international buses) quoted us 5$. I thought, nah so we were looking for a chicken bus to ride, when we were beset by taxi drivers. They tend to throng in certain places like piranha. Anyway, we were off to find a bus and they kept telling us this bus didnt go there, that one stopped all over the place, etc. I knew they were lying, but I also knew that the best way to bargain a cheap taxi fare was to let them know I really didnt care whether I rode a bus or a taxi.

So I asked the price, they quoted me 15$. I smiled and went back to bus-hunting. They chased me down and said 12$. I looked very serious for a moment, and said ten. They looked at each other, and one agreed. The buses were awfully rickety, and while I would have enjoyed the ride, it would have taken a long time and wed been traveling solid for 2 days. So we took the taxi since I figure that was a fair price. Although I probably could have gotten it for 8$. Still.

We found a market that had that papaya I showed in the last post. It was spread over a dozen blocks, arranged by type – food, clothes, etc; it was a great fun. I bought all sorts of street food. A tortilla with mozzarella type-cheese, filled with sauerkraut and topped with sour cream and chili sauce. It was actually quite good! Called a quesilla.

I then walked around looking for tannin, since a friend wanted me to bring some home. I spent about an hour looking for it, and only got blank stares. So no luck there. Used internet for a few hours at 60 cents an hour, instead of the 2-3$ Id been paying in Costa Rica, which was quite cool. Meals were 1.50$ or so, and I bought this gigantic tub of soup for 1.75$. I mean, it was like 50 ounces. It was huge. And delicious. I love their soups here. Anyway, after wandering around for a few hours enjoying soaking up some real latin american culture after being in Costa Ricas antiseptic environment, we caught a boat for Ometepe.

Ometepe is a textbook-perfect volcano. Actually, pair of volcanoes. That rise from the middle of the gigantic lake Nicaragua. One of the only (if not the only?) lakes in the world that has sharks in it. Interesting story about that, when they were discovered the pro-evolution scientists used them as a proof of evolution, that these sharks had evolved to live in fresh water over millions of years. Then finally someone thought to actually tag the sharks in question they discovered that these sharks actually migrated up to this lake from the ocean through the river, which is quite a feat. This was rather embarassing after having been used as a proof of evolution, so they stopped using that example :)

Apparently, sharks can actually live in fresh water environments without millions of years to adapt. Of course, because of fishing and pollution they are not very common anymore. Anyway, back to the volcanoes themselves, they are quite beautiful, and lava flows formed an isthmus between them forming a single island.

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I really liked Ometepe. Granted, things were a bit higher there, but not much. And it was very laidback, they grow a good portion of their own food on the island, the people were really nice, and things were all well cared-for.

In fact, we were both struck by how much happier Nicas were than Ticos (Nicaraguans vs Costa Ricans). They were more cheerful, they were feeding the seagulls off the boat, and were much more open and friendly and unhurried than their wealthier neighbors to the south. I guess wealth brings with it responsibility. And when it brings too much responsibility, and sucks all the fun out of life, maybe it isnt wealth at all?

We chose the Hacienda Merida, on the southern volcano, to spend the night, since it said it had an all-you-can-eat buffet and served brown rice, whole wheat bread, and things like that. That is all we eat, so we had been quite bread-starved going through Central America thus far. But we got to the dock at around 5:30, and found that this hotel was clear around the island, which was much bigger than I had thought.

So we walked into a place that said free tourist information, (knowing that nothing is ever free) and said we wanted to go to this hotel. He said no, all the buses had already left and a taxi would be like 30$. Then he said Oh, wait a minute! and ran outside, and came back in yelling the owner is here, he is here! And he will take you to his hotel!.

This remarkable good fortune was at first looked at with skepticism by myself, having been burned before. But it was true, he was, and he refused to accept any money for carrying us there. So an hour and a half later, we got to the hotel. Starving (Im glad it was All-You-Can-Eat!).

So we had the buffet, which at 5.75$ each was quite expensive for here, but it was all you can eat and it was healthy. So even I, a reknowned cheapskate, didnt mind paying it.  I opted out of breakfast the next morning, at 4$, since I didnt see anything I really wanted to try.

Things at this hotel are rather expensive if you stay for one day, but if you stay longer it gets cheaper. For example: Kayaks are 4$ an hour. They are 15$ for your entire stay. Same price for bicycles. Etc. Its a little skewed, but I still rented a kayak and we paddled out to monkey island. They had a sign up which said stay away from monkey island. They are agressive! – Like I listen to signs like that!

It was about a 15-minute kayak trip in our two-person kayak. Two small islands nearby to one another, I wasnt sure which was which, but we decided to circle both. Took a few pictures of birds en route, but it wasnt until we got around to the other side of the second island that we saw the monkeys. Arent they cute?

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Then we got closer, so we could get some GOOD pictures. Then they got angry.

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So here Crystal is, this monkey like 5 feet from us, trying to fend off the monkey with a paddle, while I snap pictures of it. And shes screaming this monkeys going to eat me and all you can do is take pictures??? – I of course reminded her of how great this would look on our blog, and that if the monkey ate her it would be a great Youtube entry. Imagine the hits!

She didnt think that was nearly as funny as I did. So we paddled to a safe distance, and then back home. Some other tourists were contracting with a taxi to go back to town, at 30$ for the group of 7, so we shared the costs and caught a ride back, then caught a boat to Rivas. It was quite a rough ride, and I managed to amuse myself and the other hundred-odd passengers by adding another video to my collection

Posted on February 13th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Nicaragua | 1 Comment »

Bottom Line About Costa Rica

Ok, so now that were out of Costa Rica, what do we think? Well It is a really beautiful place. Compared to other Latin American countries, it is clean, safe-feeling, good roads, and you can drink the water. Compared to the US, it is cheap to travel around. That said, here are a few myths about Costa Rica which should be expelled:

To start with, the Pura Vida farce if youve ever watched a TV show about Costa Rica where a baboon-like travel host pontificated about the wonders of Ecotourism, they will have redacted for several precious minutes about how everyone in Costa Rica uses Pura Vida, as a sort of Aloha-like phrase. Not true. We spent almost two weeks there, and we heard it, MAYBE, a half-dozen times. And always, STRICTLY, from people directly involved in tourism. Locals never used it among each other that we saw.

Now, if you had bought an all-expense paid package to dive, surf, sleep and eat, youd no doubt hear it. But it is not a local thing – it is something that, apparently, the tourism department made up to attract tourists. As such, I find it mildly patronizing – not to say disturbing – that a culture reforms itself to appeal to tourists

Another example of that sort of thinking is the green season. See, from December to May the weather is perfect in Costa Rica. It seldom rains, isnt too hot, and is good to travel. This is called the dry season. The other half of the year it rains every day. In some parts of the country, it rains non-stop for weeks on end, Im told. But the tourism drops off sharply because of the term wet season which has traditionally, and appropriately, been applied to this season.

So the ministry of tourism decided to rename it. Now officially the time from May to December is called the green season. Because non-stop rain for 6 months makes everything green! I find that rather deceptive. But to be fair, tourism departments are created to bend the truth and attract tourist dollars in every country, so Costa Rica isnt alone in that.

Prices as I said are cheaper than the USA. If you dont require air conditioning (and most people wont in most parts of Costa Rica), and are willing to share a bathroom in some towns, you can stay for between 10$ and 15$ per person per night. Away from tourist areas, you can sometimes even get air conditioning for that price. They seldom have a price per room, it is always by the person. Food in local eateries costs about 5$ per person per meal. Fruits cost roughly half of US prices, most of the time. Prepared foods (canned/dried beans, pastas, candy bars, etc) cost about double

The quality of the food is extremely high. Costa Rica is a very fertile country, and so everything tastes better than the same item at home. Usually. This is due to the heavy volcanic activity and conservation efforts that have been made thus far.

The health of the people reflects those facts, as they are one of the longest lived countries on Earth. However, I would predict that those statistics will change in the next few decades since the people were looking quite overweight and unhealthy when we were there – not compared to Americans of course, but compared to other Latin Americans. They eat a heavy portion of white rice with EVERY meal. If it wasnt for eating the cheap cuts of meat which have more nutrition in them, and eating a good amount of fruits, they would already be like us. Fast food is spreading there, too.

Ticos themselves, while nice enough for the most part, were not a very happy people from what I saw. They were always in a hurry, they seldom had time to feed the pigeons or hang out with each other on the streets like other Latin Americans do. But my biggest complaint of all, is that there are no markets in the streets, and almost no street food!

Apparently, Costa Rica has an organization like the FDA that requires food to all be processed through their facilities before it can be sold (which accounts for the relatively high food prices!), and which prevents any markets from forming without a permit. And judging by the fact that I saw no markets in 2 weeks, the permit must be hard to obtain. I was very disappointed by this, because markets and the attendant street food is to me, the best part of Latin America.

The upside  is that almost all food can probably be eaten without worrying too much about Montezumas revenge and such illnesses. But I find it a high price to pay for that.

So bottom line Costa Rica is a great entry-level Latin American country.

If youve never gone south of the border before, for fear of Federales or Drug Raids or Man Eating Snakes or Belly-Eating Bacteria go to Costa Rica. Youll scarcely know you left home, except its more beautiful than the eastern USA and cheaper than any USA destination.

You cant see turtles the size of volkwagons nesting by the thousands in the USA. You cant see monkeys hanging from treetops in the wild in the USA. Costa Rica offers thousands of things like that you cant see in the USA, and in some cases, anywhere else on Earth.

But if you want to see the REAL Latin America – not what Latin Americans think Gringos would want Latin America to be.  and if youre wanting to make your dollar stretch a bit try Nicaragua.

P.S. I am sure this will offend some people. I am sorry about that, but this is the facts as I saw them. Im sure they would be perceived differently by other people, and some people think Costa Rica is like a Western Garden of Eden. I didnt.

Posted on February 9th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Costa Rica | No Comments »

Last Two Posts

The last two posts got published in reverse order, sorry ;)

Posted on February 5th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Mexico | No Comments »

Corcovado to Puerto Jiminez

So next day the Taxi driver was supposed to pick us up at 5:30. He was late (he was grumpy about coming to this hotel, remember, so I think it was passive-aggressive resistance). He brought the 2 liter bottle of local milk I had asked him for, which cost me 2$, which was quite cheap, and it was quite good. I had had him chill it so it would be good and cold so it would last on the trek. He took us to the horses we had hired, which cost about 22$ each, and carried us about 7 miles up the trail to the edge of Corcovado park.

costa-rica-09-005.jpg

From there it was about 5 minutes to the first park station, which I THOUGHT was Los Patos, but apparently it wasn´t. And, in case you need to know, you have to register at the park station before 10am or they won´t let you start the hike. Which is just as well, since we started at 9:30am and finished at 6pm.

At this juncture let me say that Corcovado is very poorly signed and the trails are not well maintained. I mean, most of the time they are wide enough and easy to follow, but they have a lot of trees down across the trail that require detours through the jungle, not all of which are easy.  For the price paid by a few hikers, that could have been fixed. And there were at least 60 people in Sirena when we got there. Sirena is the ranger station in the middle of the park where most of the action happens in the wildlife scene.

From the edge of the park, it was about 2 kilometers, mostly uphill, and fairly steep in spots, although not compared to Chirripo. Then we found Los Patos, which was entirely deserted and had been for some time. Huge spider webs were all over everything, it was kinda creepy. From there, the sign said it was 17km to Sirena. But again, I don´t see how that is possible. Everyone I talked to, people who hike all the time, said it was MUCH longer than that. At least 14 miles, or around 25km. It was a long hike, even though it was fairly easy through much of it. It was also a bit monotonous, since the forests were all pretty much the same.

The first 6k was uphill and downhill a lot. The net result was downhill, but it wasn´t noticable until you were on flat ground, and you were like ¨oh, this is flat now!¨ After that it was mostly flat. We saw some peccaries, a wild pig, got a really bad picture of one before they fled the scene. Saw three different types of monkeys, got some fairly decent pictures of them,  and saw a few birds. But the NOISE! It was almost unbearable. Some sort of cricket-like bug in the treetops was making a racket, and there were I kid you not, millions of them, and it was almost all you could do to hear anything. Talking was hard, it was so noisy.

We saw almost no flowers and little scenery worth noting. Sirena had a nice platform, covered, for the tents, but their bathroom facilities again, left a lot to be desired. For the price I alone paid for camping, the place could have been wonderful. It´s a shame to see something that close to right, but frustratingly not.

I had trouble sleeping so I took a hike down to the ocean at about 10pm. It was beautiful, the tide was out, tons of stars, etc. Next morning we decided to leave Sirena though. Didn´t sleep well, for several reasons mostly, we just weren´t prepared for camping and had none of the things we needed – big tents, pillows, sheets, vents in the tents, etc. Sirena was great, but not for the unprepared. The trail in was harder than they said it was, and longer, by everyone´s account.

On the upside, bugs were only bad at sundown/sunrise, humidity was no worse than East Texas in mid summer, and temperature was about 85 in the daytime, and 70 at night. But it didn´t cool down until around 1am, so wasn´t much help.

Sunrise from Sirena beach:

costa-rica-09-007.jpg

It´s a nice beach for looking, but not for swimming or walking. To narrow, too rocky, and too shallow for anything but looking. So we caught a great deal on a flight out of there, since Crystal´s knee was bothering her again and we didn´t think we could walk out via the La Leona trail as we had planned. The flight took us 13 minutes to Puerto Jiminez and costa 50$ each. But I wanted to see at least something at Sirena before we left, so I ran down a trail, about a mile round trip, and saw a Taida (think of a cross between a Mongoose and a black cat) and then heard the plane and turned around and left.

Had soup for lunch in Puerto Jiminez, about 4$ but it was a gigantic bowl. And their soups are really delicious.  Called home at about 30 cents a minute, caught a bus for San Jose and that´s where I´ll stop for today.

Posted on February 5th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Costa Rica | 1 Comment »

Puerto Jiminez to Nicaragua

On the bus I sat next to a french woman for part of the way who spoke no english or spanish. I studied some french so I tried to talk to her. It was very hard at first because I was in a Spanish mode, and French wasn´t coming easily. But as I stumbled a bit it came back to me and by the time we were done I was actually, almost, communicating!

When she got off, someone got on with a chicken in a bottle. No, seriously.

costa-rica-09-009.jpg

We asked them ¨wow, how did you fit that bird in that bottle!¨and they got a kick out of it. (There was a notch cut out of the other side). Apparently it was a special cornish hen that would have very nutritious eggs that were worth a lot. That was about all I was able to get. Anyway, the ride from Chacaritas to San Isidro was new territory for us, and it was quite beautiful. Just one sample:

costa-rica-09-010.jpg

That afternoon saw us in San Jose, where we transferred to a bus for Liberia, to spend the night in a hostel there. The price of the hostel was quite cheap for Costa Rica – 7$ – but we got scammed a bit. See, he quoted us 7$ each. So 14$ for tw0. He then asked for 8000 colones, which is a favorable rate for him (about 550 per dollar, which is close to right). I then didn´t have many colones (I was not wanting to get stuck with many at the border) so I gave him a US 20$, worth about11,000 colones. He then gave himself a very, VERY favorable rate of exchange on the change, at about 500 colones per dollar, thereby giving me back 2000 colones, or about 4 dollars. So all in all, he scammed me for about 2 dollars.

Not huge, but worth noticing since it has happened to a lot of travelers I talked to. Especially at this hotel. Hotel Liberia it was called, and it is quite run down, and the owner not too nice. Lonely Planet gave it a great review, but evidently it is not as nice as it used to be. Anyway, it was cheap. So we caught a bus to Nicaragua and saw the biggest Papaya I had ever seen

costa-rica-09-011.jpg

And the rest later

Posted on February 5th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Costa Rica | No Comments »

Uvita to Corcovado

Ok, so after being dropped off at the road to Uvita, which was out of town where the bus picked up, (a different bus went south from Uvita) after about 45 minutes we got on. I wasn´t sure where I was going, but I figured south was a good idea. So we went south, and on the bus met a couple from Seattle and a couple from Denmark. Neither spoke much spanish, so I helped them a bit to get their bearings on the bus and where we were going, which I had figured out by then. Turned out we were all going the same place at the same time so we saw alot of each other over the next week.

The bus ride to La Palma, where we were all spending the night, was quite exhilirating. The road wouldn´t have qualified as a county road back home, was quite curvy, and the bus driver seemed to actually speed UP on curves. It was quite a ride, I spent it hanging from the handles on the bus so I´d swing with each turn. Great fun. So we got off the bus in La Palma, and were beset by taxi drivers. Now I knew that La Palma had hotels, but I couldnt´remember the name of the one I found on the internet. The other couples didn´t know where they were going, they were following me, and I had no clue. But I told them that up front, so it was their fault if they followed the blind into the ditch!

Anyway, we found a taxi driver willing to shuttle all of us to a hotel by the beach for 6$, which wasn´t bad. Although we later found that 4$ was the going price. Oh well :) Spent the night there, the next day the taxi driver took us to his house to call the ranger station about park permits. Unfortunately, the park was full until Friday (this was Monday). None of us wanted to wait, but none of us wanted to miss Corcovado. So we split up for a few days, Crystal and I going to visit our friend in Golfito, Anna and Jacob from Denmark going to enter the park from the south end, and Huck and Margaret from Seattle going to enter from the east end on Friday morning with us. We had to go to Puerto Jiminez, about 45 minutes by bus, to make reservations so I went on ahead and made reservations for the entire group. Which was harder than it should have been. See, imagine this

A small, dusty town, a few miles across. In the middle, there is a bank. Outside of town, on the other end, is the park office. We had to go to the park office first to get reservations. Then when that was done I had to hurry back across town to pay for the park service at the bank (you can´t pay at the park, for some reason!).

Unfortunately, when I got to the bank, I discovered that the bank required a passport to use my debit card. So I had to walk BACK to the park to get my passport. The bank of course closed at 3;30 and so I had to practically run since this was about a 2-mile round trip journey and I had 15 minutes. So I got back to the bank just in time. Then I walked all the way BACK to the park office (because, of course, once you pay, you have to get the receipt validated at the park office, across town!!) .. and the park office, was, of course, closed!

Needless to say, I was tired of walking And thoroughly irritated at this BACKWARDS way of setting up a payment system. Anyway. Then we wanted to catch the boat to golfito. But it was leaving any minute, we were told! So we had to half walk, half run, with our packs, clear out of town another mile or so, to the jetty to catch the boat! Which, as it happened, didn´t leave for another 30 minutes. Oh well, that´s latin american for ya.

So in Golfito we were able to relax for a few days, our friend took us out to his farm, but we didn´t spent much time there although we did get to eat young coconut for the first time. If you catch it before it gets ripe, the juice is very, very sweet and the pulp is like jelly. I think I drank/ate three coconuts there. They call them ¨pipas¨when they are young. They say it has more electrolytes than gatorade, and obviously it´s much better for you.

Later, we mentioned we wanted to try exotic fruits and everyone said ¨You HAVE to see Robert!¨ Robert is an ex-pat from Maine who has lived in Costa Rica for 50 years, and has an absolutely fabulous garden with thousands of plants over about 20 acres. We ate a Rollina for the first time, which is something like a giant cactus fruit with a custard pie inside. Seriously, it tasted like a good coconut custard pie. It was out of this world right off the tree. If you´re in that part of Costa Rica, a little ways south of Golfito, you absolutely have to see it, it was one of the highlights of our trip.

He also introduced us to velvet apples, which looked like a giant peach with rather dry, sweet flesh. The taste was rather well, it tasted a bit like eggnog. He also cooked us some African Palm fruits, which they use to make palm oil, which is his cash crop, but they look like a large date, taste rather like a very stringy, greasy sweet potato with a huge nut inside. He then roasted the nut, which tasted like a cooked, smoked, garbanzo bean. All of it was delicious. We spent several hours there and it was delightful. He has a website at:

http://paradise-garden.tripod.com

Next day we borrowed some bikes and went for a ride about 6 miles round trip, along the beach/jungle in Golfito. Didn´t see much wildlife, but the ride was very nice. It ended on a beach called Cacao beach, but we didn´t quite go all the way. We wanted to catch the boat back to Puerto Jiminez since it was Wednesday and our friend was really busy with work at the time. Back in Jiminez I got my park permission validated, then we tried to hurry to catch the bus to La Palma. Which we were in time for, just before 4pm, but which didn´t show up until 6:10. Again, Latin America, just gotta go with the flow :)

The park fees and camping fees for 3 nights and 4 days for 2 people cost 100$, which was a bit steep, but ok. We wanted to stay in the hostel, but it was full, regrettably. So back in La Palma, the Seattle couple wasn´t were we had left them, which we later learned was because the campground was by an enormously loud Karaoke bar. And as we all know, karaoke is meant to be sung by, and enjoyed by, drunks.

So we drove around in the taxi looking for them for awhile, but to no avail. Someone told us they were farther down the beach, at a certain hotel, but the taxi driver refused to go there – said the roads were bad. I later learned that was a lie, and that we were caught in the middle of some sort of feud where this taxi driver and that hotel owner hated each other and the taxi driver refused to take people to their hotel. But for that night, we hit the sack and found Huck and Margaret at the hotel where we´d been told they were.

Played euchre for a few hours, during which time I took this picture which I am quite fond of

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Two scarlet macaws crossing in front of the sun. They were everywhere, eating the wild almond trees that grew by the beach. Jacob tried to open one, spent 5 minutes cutting into it, and found the tiniest nut you ever saw. It really was a letdown after all that work, but it was fun anyway ;)

They also had cashew trees there. Ever wonder why cashews cost so much? This is how they grow:

costa-rica-09-002.jpg

That is a cashew fruit. That thing on top is the cashew shell. Inside of that is a normal sized cashew. So for every handful of cashews you eat, a few dozen of these fruits have to be processed. It´s amazing they are as cheap as they are! (The fruit itself was rather green-persimmony, although it might have had uses somewhere).

Then we went kayaking for an hour or so, they were one-man kayaks for 2$ an hour each. I explored the mangroves around there in some detail. Next morning we were up early and caught this sunrise and we´ll pick up that story next!

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Posted on February 2nd, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Costa Rica | No Comments »

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