Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Things I'll miss

The punctual start of the rainy season – the text book says end of April or beginning of May, and there you go (first heavy rain drops today).

Sunrises at 5am. Sunsets at 6pm.

Soft beach sand that makes you sink on your own footsteps.






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Playa Uvita, in the central pacific coast of Costa Rica. Another unspoiled treasure, virtually all for myself…

Never mind

(Monday, 27 April 2009)

In great contrast with yesterday, I’ve been today all day extremely excited with the present and the future prospects of the trip.

Don’t understand this humour swings.

Is it swine flu?

Blue? Why?

(Sunday, 26 April 2009)

Great day, driving the 4WD in the dusty and bumpy roads of the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Great beaches, most of them completely deserted. Inland, beautiful landscapes and a couple of rivers to cross. Sweet!

And then, at night, I’m feeling blue. Doesn’t make much sense. Why?

I think I’m starting to get used to the fact I’m travelling. I mean, almost 3 months have passed; at least 3 months more lie ahead. No counting of the weeks passed anymore. No counting of the weeks left yet.

Just going with the flow, getting used to it. And when you get used to things, it’s easier to get blue, bored with them.

I try to remember myself how free and lucky I am at the moment. To make of this travel whatever I want. Go wherever I want, do whatever I feel like (budget allows, of course…)

That thought hits home, but somehow takes time to sink in. I’m still feeling blue.

Well, tomorrow is another day. Let’s see how it goes…




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Beautiful, no matter what they say...

(Thursday-Saturday 23-25 April 2009)

Costa Rica is beautiful. Of a natural beauty which is more intense than anything else I’ve seen thus far. That, and the natural parks in particular, was what brought me here. So, no disappointments there.

Sure, chicken buses gave way (almost, but not in total) to normal, more punctual buses. Things seem more European, westernised – no more gunmen ensuring safety at stores’ entrances, for instance.

(I’m curious to know what I’d have found of Costa Rica should I’ve came here directly from Portugal, without any previous time at other Central American countries – would I still find it so harmless, or would I’ve experienced a cultural shock anyway?)

But, as I was saying, tourism is more developed here. Not that I’ve seen many more tourists here than elsewhere – it’s not so much the case. Things have just been around for longer – since the 60s and 70s, when the boom started. Meaning there is more infrastructure – from hostels to supermarkets - and the culture of receiving tourists is more developed – it’s easier to find a coffee shop with a little more character or the random sushi place.

It also means there are plenty of (US, mostly) ex-pats and you can speak English almost anywhere. Or that it’s very easy to go down the coast and find beautiful beaches destroyed by concrete of resort development, or visit natural reserves which seem more like Disney theme parks, so crowded they can become. [partially quoting the guidebook here, as I’ve fortunately managed to escape that kind of place thus far…]

But you still have plenty of unspoiled places. Like the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, where you can drive for hours without seeing a car or visit beach after beach of deserted sand. Or the natural park of Rincon De La Vieja, where I managed to hike for hours in the nature treks without seeing a single (human) soul.

Having your own wheels helps – you can get to the most remote places quicker, and without having to pay really high 4WD taxi fares, as there isn’t public transportation for many of the most interesting places.

That’s why I rented a 4WD for a few days. No, the 4WD thing is not so much a childish demand of mine – you’ve no idea how bad most of the roads are around here. If you choose to drive, you do need one.

I'm happy I decided not to give up after the first comments I heard on the road a few weeks ago that Costa Rica was too explored by tourism and it wouldn't feel as authentic as other Central American countries.

Actually, I’ve been founding plenty of small hidden treasures to enjoy all by myself.

And hey, Costa Rica is just too beautiful for you not to give it a try...



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Now we're talking...

Natural park of Rincon De La Vieja, where I hiked for 20km in the humid forest. Monkeys and colourful birds, plus two rain forest deer that passed less than 3 meters away from me. I was trying to reach my camera with one hand while the other was trying to shut my wide-open mouth from seeing the first deer, when the second one passed running, really really close. Then there was a big snake, less than a meter from my feet that made me jump and remember Costa Rica is really famous for its biodiversity. At that moment, I decided to grab a walking stick – just in case…





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Yes, the natural park of Rincon De La Vieja is a volcanic site...
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Cycling in Cabo Branco, in the southern tip of Nicoya Peninsula



This deserted beach, only reachable through the paid-for natural reserve of Cabo Blanco, is paradise. There are always plenty of birds in the water (it's a major nesting site for them), and they don't fly away when you dive and swim just by their side. They rule here...
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...As do these huge lizards, which are everywhere - you soon get used to them

Closer to the equator

(Monday-Wednesday 20-22 April 2009)

I take home a quick but good impression of Nicaragua. I’ve literally just cruised through, but it seems to be the kind of place I’d like to come back some day.

The idea of staying around for a few days instead of going directly from Honduras to Costa Rica was reinforced by the first few sights after the Honduras-Nicaragua border.

The northwest of Nicaragua is mostly flat, but volcanoes pop up like mushrooms in the cultivated landscape. This is the most volcanic region of Central America after all…

And it results very different from the volcanic region of Guatemala, where the volcanoes are set in the context of wider mountainous systems – here it’s all flat and then, pop, a volcano.

And there is Lake Nicaragua, which rivals Lake Atitlán (Guatemala) in beauty. The volcanic scenery may not be as immediately impressive, but it’s there, and the lake is huge – feeling like a sea, not a lake.

I spent a couple of days in the island of Ometepe, in the middle of the lake. It’s formed by two extinct volcanoes, one in each side of the island, brought together by a small isthmus.

The island is a nice laid back place, and worth the 4h boat ride from Granada, and then the 1h boat ride back to the nearest lake shore, in San Jorge. Even if the island was too mountainous for me to explore too much of it by bicycle (what was I thinking when I rented it - man, THE ROADS ARE SO UNBELIEAVEBLY BAD!!), I managed to find plenty of opportunities for hiking and beach time at the lake, so I was kept entertained.

But well, back to my generic (and quick…) impression of Nicaragua, there is another thing which seems to me remarkable about this country: its people. No, I’ll save you from the typical cliché of how friendly and welcoming they are. It’s not about that – the women are beautiful. The mixture of indigenous blood (not Mayan, by the way!), Spanish (and other Europeans) and African (slaves brought to the Caribbean coast by the British) worked just too well.

The rule that the closer to the equator the more beautiful the people seems to be confirmed. (later on, further data points in Costa Rica seem to strengthen the conclusion)

Oh! And there is poverty too. Statistically speaking, Nicaragua is the safest country where to travel in Central America. But I saw and was addressed by more bums and homeless here in 3 or 4 days than during the rest of the trip.

For instance, I was having dinner at a local street food stall in Granada, when I notice a teenager seating in the floor behind me, staring the all time. I eat alert; relaxed, but alert. At the end of my meal he comes over and asks if he can take the leftovers with him. Sure! I wouldn’t have eaten so much of the fried banana at the end of the plate if I knew it – I was making an effort anyway…

I never had something like that happen to me during all my time in Guatemala.

But it’s rather ok - I’m closer to the equator, right?



Lake Nicaragua

Volcano in Ometepe - always covered in clouds...




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Riding the bumpy road to... (how does the music go?)

Small is good

(Weekend, 18-19 April 2009)

I wake up really early on Saturday morning. I need to take the ferry back to La Ceiba and then the bus to the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. From there, the bus to Nicaragua and then Costa Rica.

The ferry ride back is much smoother than the one when I was coming to Roatán, so no incident to report there. Same goes for the bus ride – just too hot. I manage to sleep most of time anyway.

And here I am – back to another Central American capital. None of them is known by their beauty. Like in Guatemala City, the slums growing up the hills welcome you on arrival. The bus terminal and market area is quite dodgy but not too bad of an option if you just need to crash for a night of sleep in between buses, according to the travel guidebook. I agree – with both aspects of the advice.

I choose a hostel just across the street. Not luxurious at all, but it seems ok. It even has a computer with internet for guests. Ups, it doesn’t work when I try it later! I’m going out for a snack, when a middle age couple comes in. No bags in their hands – their hands are busy holding each other. They’re Honduran, like the other 4 people I could see in the guest book. They ask for a room. Clearly they’re not spending the all night here, and leave soon afterwards. I didn’t check the exact time, but it was apparently enough for them to do whatever they came here to do…

Nice. I seem to be staying at a place where couples come for a couple of hours of sex. I need to send a feedback review to the travel guidebook. Yes I do.

I’ve dinner at a place close by. Confirmation: the area is dodgy indeed.

I forget about it all with a good night of sleep. A too long one – I wake up late and need to rush to the bus station. I miss the 6.00 am bus because… it was a 5.30am bus after all. Nice. This means I will have to stay in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, as the next bus at 9.30am won’t get me there in time for the connection to Costa Rica.

Change in plans: I’ll spend a couple of days in Nicaragua and go my way down at a somehow slower pace.


So, the 9.30am bus to Managua I get. The bus is not too bad – it even has a TV where they show some movies! The problem is the selection – John Rambo kind of thing – and the volume, as you spend the 9 hour ride with sounds of poorly choreographed fights and gunshot exchanges by your ears.

At the border they charge you a few dollars for not even putting a stamp in the passport. “You don’t need one when crossing from Honduras to Nicaragua”. So, what are the dollars for? Just for looking at my beautiful picture?

To Managua we go. We arrive at the bus station around 4pm and I want to get a taxi to a local bus station, where I’ll get a bus to Granada, a small lovely colonial town just 1h away. I’ll spend the night there as I decided to stay way from big capitals if I can.

Rightly so. As I’m about to enter the taxi someone throws an orange-sized rubber ball filled with sand that goes slightly over my and the taxi driver’s heads. It hits the wall behind us with a big noise. A few blokes laugh. They seem to be all taxi drivers, and the one who threw the ball is easily identifiable – unlike the others, he’s huge (bodybuilder type) and he’s making threatening gestures. Not sure if for me or my taxi driver.

When my taxi driver asks me to seat in the front, besides him, I understand he’s doing that to give him some protection – the other guys wouldn’t throw anything else so clearly at a tourist, when everyone else is already looking. So he thinks, and so I hope. And so it happens. Without further incidents we get to the local bus station, where I take my ride to Granada.

I think I got what happened. As I was leaving the bus I was approached by a few taxi drivers who asked me too-high-to-be-true fares for the 15 minutes ride. I turn them down, and start negotiating with the man who eventually took me – for half the initial price. The taxi drivers around us are clearly upset with him by the fact he might have ruined everyone else’s business, as there are two other tourists around who may do the same. (unjustified concern: I knew already that couple would stay the night in the hotel by the bus station and would take no taxi that day…)

The ball throwing thing was apparently to “punish” him for that.

What if the damn ball would have hit me? I’m damn sure it would have hurt. Big time: it was hard.

In case I didn’t know it before, and, believe me, I did, the further away from big capital cities, the better. Small is good…

By the way, Granada is small and charming. Its colonial restored buildings remind me of Antigua – the proximity of the Lake Nicaragua and a volcano compose the picture. Not as touristy as Antigua – yet – but almost.

But hey, it’s small.


Granada, Nicaragua






Monday, 20 April 2009

Bring me the boat

(Wednesday – Friday, 15-17 April 2009)

The ferry ride from La Ceiba to the Roátan island, in Honduras, was really really bumpy. Half the people in the boat got sick. I didn’t just because I had nothing on my stomach – good decision not to have lunch before boarding...

But it was worth it. Not so much because of the island. At least where I stayed, in West Bay, there isn’t much to write home about. The sand is golden, the water crystal clear, but the all place has been taken over by tourists and ex-pats, most of them living from diving or related activities. This means the place really lacks character.

But diving was what made the all trip worth it. I really loved the course: saw lobsters, turtles (they really swim fast under water…), scorpion fish… :-) The reef is huge and relatively well preserved, so I can understand why this is the diving Mecca of Central America…

And now I think I’m addicted to it! I see why people come for a diving course of a few days, and end up staying months to complete several specialities and even doing the all thing up to diving master. I notice myself thinking how much I’d love to the same, and drawing all these plans about what to do with the certification when I’m back home.

Mike: do you still want to pursue the dream of sharing a boat? If so, I just have a request more: we need diving equipment…






Copán

(Monday, 13 April 2009)

They say that if Tikal, in Guatemala, was the Manhattan of the Maya (because of the tall and grandiose buildings), Copán was the Paris – because of its scientific and cultural achievements, and beautifully nuanced constructions.

Even if the setting is not as majestic as in Tikal, where the tropical jungle surrounding the huge complex gives an extra spin to the monumental buildings, Copán impresses you by the beautiful carvings and details in the buildings.

By the way, the Gnome is back. I’ve been forgetting him lately, but here he is, admiring the Mayan ruins.

Jeff was back in the hostel, closed in one of the pockets of my back pack. (hush, hush: I think him and the gnome had a fight, and they’re still without talking to each other…)









Monday, 13 April 2009

Cooking

(Sunday, 12 April 2009)

I haven’t cooked in a while. Until today. The hostel I’m staying in Copán, Honduras, has a quite spotless kitchen for guests’ use. I’d probably have gotten a meal by the same price in a food stall in the street, but I just felt like cooking.

I went shopping late, so not much to choose from: rice, corn and scrambled eggs. Ah! And milk. A whole litre of it. Damn, I miss it!

It was good to spend some time with the pans, alone, in the kitchen. Travel does this to you, I guess.

You meet plenty of folks down the road, but you still spend a lot of time on your own. And that’s good. I’m an introvert after all...

It’s also good to have some company for a day or two, but then you move on – different directions or not.

But so, as I was saying, you spend plenty of time on your own.

To me, it has meant I’ve been remembering past stuff from my life. Some stuff I hadn’t thought in years. Other stuff that has happened recently, but it still surprises me the extent to which I can remember it in detail.

Stuff from high school or even my childhood. Last year in college, when I shared a flat with a mate. Past travels. Stuff from work. The departure from London.

No nostalgia. No regrets either. No critical thinking , actually. It just looks like when the brain gets bored during the long travel hours, it closes in itself and dives deep in the souvenir box.

It just digs, moves things around. Picks one thing, looks at another. And then it puts them all back in and leaves them there, for the next time travel.

It’s curious and the first time I’ve experienced it this way. It seems like you need serious time on your own for it to happen.

And, if it keeps this way, I’ll end up remembering my 9 months in the womb by the end of this trip...

Rio Dulce – the cherry on top of the cake

(Saturday, 11 April 2009)

Rio Dulce was my last stop in Guatemala. Nice surprise.

If you’d have to guess from the look of it in the centre of town, by the bridge, you’d never say so.

The shabby first encounter is in deep contrast with the water front, which has green forest all around and some secluded places just by the river, only accessible by boat.

I stayed in some nice bungalows, set in a small and quiet river branch. To swim, you´ve top paddle 5 minutes or so in the jungle covered canal, to access the floating platform set in the open water. And the place has a great barbecue dinner menu – my best meal since I left home. By far.

I’ve missed this type of quality. It’s true that I’ve been staying at budget places, but so it was this one. And so were many of those where we stayed in Southeast Asia.

I’ve been thinking how people seem to live better in Southeast Asia than here – even if on a similar budget. I think it partially has to do with the culture – that of the locals and of the tourists who come here too.

The food is better there. Religion less imposing. You’ve the massages. The “healthy mind on an healthy body” mindset. And I guess that ends up spilling over to the travel experience.

Don´t take it wrong - I'm amazed at some of the beauty I've seen here. But if you'd ask me where I'd rather live, Thailand or Guatemala, I wouldn't have second thoughts about it...