It’s been way too long since I updated this thing but I’m going to try to capture some highlights of the last couple of weeks as we’ve traveled through Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Crossing the border into Honduras, we learned that we had in fact been illegal immigrants in Guatemala for the last two weeks. When we had passed the border at Belize, our passports were stamped on that side, but on the other side there didn’t seem to be anything else we needed to do, so we bumbled back onto the bus. What we hadn’t realized was that we were supposed to go to a second checkpoint and have our passports stamped on arrival. Oopsy. It sounds more dramatic than it actually was… all we needed to do was pay a $25 fine and everything was OK.Thankfully we had enough cash with us or things might have got a bit more interesting.
Our main reasons for visiting Honduras were to a) see the ruins in Copan and b) get to Nicaragua, and this seemed to be the case with many people we met. The town of Copan has dusty cobble stone streets full of men wearing cowboy hats and young shirtless boys playing pool in dimly lit rooms. It feels quite unlike Guatemala and indeed, physically people look quite different – they are noticeably darker and taller- which is surprising given it is close proximity to the border. We arrived quite accidentally in the midst of their annual festival and whilst we were a bit too tired to go and see the rodeo, we did happen upon a brass band, with the biggest tuba I’ve ever seen, playing just around the corner from our hotel (and bizarrely, on our second and final morning there, we were woken at 5:30am by a loud brass band, presumably the same one, playing right outside our window. Why they were doing their thing at such an ungodly hour is anyone’s guess). We saw lots of signs warning people not to carry guns, and when we crossed the border everyone was searched for weapons. We also saw a flock of vultures (and a dog) chowing down on a dog’s carcass. Honduras is is a hard ass town.
The ruins are of course the main attraction and we set out on our second day to walk the short distance across town and down a short road to see them in all their Mayan glory. Copan ruins aren’t as big as Tikal, or as grand as Chichen Itza, but their collection of stelae (large carved stone monoliths) are particularly impressive, as is huge hieroglyphic staircase which outlines the history of the settlement. We spent several pleasant hours there and chose not to engage the services of a guide since this was our seventh Mayan site and we felt like we’d seen enough to understand the gist of what we were seeing.
Rather than break the journey up by traveling east to the Bay Islands, we instead opted to traverse the entire country southwards and head straight to Nicaragua. This meant an overnight stopover in the capital, Tegucigalpa, via San Pedro Sula, apparently the world’s most dangerous city, so understandably we weren’t looking forward to this leg of the journey. We only saw Tegucigalpa in the dark, arriving at around 8pm and leaving the next morning at 5:30am, but I don’t think we missed out on anything other than lots of cars, concrete and the prospect of getting knifed. On arrival, we toyed with the idea of venturing out for dinner, but when our hostess, Olimpia, looked slightly concerned and advised us to take nothing with us, we decided to curl up and watch a bit of bad telly and eat oranges. Plus, when you’re staring down the barrel of a 4am start, the appeal of a Wendy’s burger is pretty limited.
After two fairly long days of travel, we arrived in the wonderful colonial town of Granada where we rendezvoused with none other than Ahmad Abas, who had flown all the way from Perth to join us on the last leg of the journey. We were all a bit tired and groggy, but that was soon forgotten once we were nursing cold beers and sipping on the bottle of 8 year old mescal we’d bought in Mexico and had been saving for this very occasion. We stayed in a wonderful converted colonial home with two enormous courtyards – one of which had a pool – each surrounded by wide, high ceilinged balconies which were ideal for us to socialize both amongst ourselves and the other guests.
Granada is such a lovely city and it’s definitely one of my favourites of this trip. It has the typical grid pattern of many mexican and central American towns but it really has a character all of it’s own. It’s quite dilapidated and noticeably poorer than many places we’ve seen; in a strange way, it looked more like we had expected Havana would look than Havana itself. I was struck by the vibrancy of the colours… a typical palette might be scarlet, ochre, lilac and green, all alongside each other and somehow managing to look fabulous. The streets are full of horse drawn buggies (some for tourists, some for trade) which provide a constant and atmospheric clop-clop-clop, not to mention a very ‘authentic’ aroma. The main square, Parque Central, is really the heart of the city. A beautifully ornate rotunda takes pride of place in the centre, around which local Nicas gather to sell souvenirs and snacks, the most famous of which is ‘vigoron’, an indulgent trio of pork crackling, mashed yuca and coleslaw. Around Parque Central are some wonderfully grand buildings with intricately patterned mosaic floors and the ubiquitous high ceilinged verandahs, perfect for escaping the afternoon heat and enjoying a cool drink. We spent four nights in the city and it completely charmed me. More than ever before, I felt like I was a character in a Marquez novel.
Whilst we managed to get a feel for the city, we also embraced wholeheartedly the many day trips and activities easily accessible from Granada. No trip to Nicaragua is complete without a trip to a volcano, so we all took an evening tour up to Masaya, where we could stare into its gaping, smoking mouth (whilst wearing gas masks because the fumes are so toxic) and catch a glimpse of glowing embers once it was dark. As a (so-called) added bonus, we also got to see a cave that houses thousands of bats and feel the air from their wings as they flew around us in the dark.
Dotted around the Granada peninsula are hundreds of small (and I mean really small) islands called ‘Las Isletas,’ many of which are privately owned and house wealthy Nicas’ holiday mansions. We took a lovely boat ride which meandered slowly around the islands, taking in the fabulous houses, as well as some beautiful bird life and even a couple of friendly monkeys (which we suspect had been planted there for tourists). The boat stopped off at one of the smaller islands where we enjoyed a great lunch of whole fish covered in tasty salsa.
We were also keen to check out nearby Lake Apoyo and some of the surrounding villages so one morning we hopped on one of the fabulously garish ‘chicken buses’ ( the somewhat pejorative term for local transport) and headed out to a little village called ‘Caterina,’ one of the famed Pueblos Blancos towns (although we didn’t see too many white houses). The town itself was quite pretty, the usual small square and white stucco church, and gave us a nice view of the lake, which made us even keener to swim in it. After a bit of haggling, the three of us jammed ourselves in a tuk tuk which slowly but surely wound its way down the mountain to the base of the lake. Truth be told, it didn’t look that fantastic once we got there, but we’d come this far, and were determined to get wet (even when we spotted a dead bird at the water’s edge) so Ahmad and I had a quick swim whilst Marty held the fort (ie: had a beer). From there our tuk tuk capitano zipped us over to the nearby town of Masaya, where we saw a very disappointing artisan market but did manage to eat some good ceviche whilst sitting in brightly painted, wacky 2m high chairs in the middle of the square.
The next day, armed with snacks I’d procured from the local market and a bottle of really quite decent rum, we set off to catch our afternoon bus to Liberia in Costa Rica, where we would be spending the night en route to the mountains. It seems the further south we’ve gone, the more chaotic things have became, and when we got to the bus station we learned that there had been ‘problems’ and the bus would be two, maybe three hours late. When I say bus station, the Nicaraguan version is a small unairconditioned room with about four chairs… not a great place to spend any more time than you need to, so we did the only thing we could – jump in a cab and head to a shady verandah for beer drinking. Finally, the bus arrived (about three hours late) and we were on our way to Costa Rica.
Liberia was a necessary stopover to get to Monteverde and we didn’t have high expectations but we also didn’t expect it to be quite as much of a shit hole as we found it to be. For those of you who have visited Kalgoorlie (which I like to call ‘the armpit of Australia’), you will possibly understand what I mean when I say Liberia could be its sister city. Hot, dusty, almost entirely lacking in charm (I say almost because there were maybe three nice enough colonial buildings) it seems to have been designed as a launching pad for nicer, more interesting places. It’s only redeeming feature was the amazing shower in our hotel, which was without question the best one I’ve had on the entire trip. The bus out of there didn’t leave til three in the afternoon and boy was I ready for it. This is definitely a place I’ll never be visiting again unless I really, really have to.
The drive to Monteverde was long and remarkably bumpy, but was possibly one of the most picturesque yet, and there’s been a fair bit of competition. As we snaked through the mountains, it almost felt like we were in the English countryside, with farms dotted prettily and neatly across the hills. Costa Rica is a country of micro-climates and this becomes very apparent as you watch the landscape change right before your eyes. Quaint hillside farms morph into dense forrest and then another bend in the road reveals a dryer, slightly scrubby terrain.
Our little cottage in Monteverde, El Sol, was a big winner and it wasn’t really little at all, in fact, it felt quite decadent having it just for three of us. The house has been lovingly and thoughtfully designed by a German woman and her ex-husband, and is made almost entirely of wood which gives it a beautiful, warm smell. Even the door handles and window shutters have been hand made, and it’s all peppered with vibrant local fabrics and brightly coloured plates and bowls.The property is about 15 minutes from the town, and you can’t really go anywhere without a car, but when we weren’t out and about, it was a wonderful to place to kick back. The house also had one of the loveliest infinity pools I’ve ever seen, with uninterrupted views of the mountains surrounding you whilst you float around and wash away the heat of the day. The owner’s son, Javier, a strapping young man if ever I saw one, was incredibly helpful and managed to sort out a transport conundrum we’d been mulling over for a few days which meant we could stay there an extra night and avoid an unwanted stopover in San Jose.
And there are plenty of reasons to be out and about in Monteverde because there are so many activities to choose from! For some strange reason, I thought that I’d find zip lining less scary than some of the other things I’ve done recently, like scaling waterfalls and swimming through dark underground caves. I don’t really fear heights, so I figured I’d be fine, careening along metal cables in the jungle, suspended by a harness and a few metal widgets. As it turned out, I felt fine being suspended 150 metres or more above the jungle floor, but what really scared me, was the feeling of hurtling along at what felt to me like break-neck, out of control speeds. Before you get on one of these things, they explain how to sit (lean back, legs out front and crossed) and to use your strong arm as a brake by pulling the wire down behind you. At each stretch of zip line, they’d tell you how hard to brake, or whether you shouldn’t brake at all, and whilst on a rational level I knew it was safe enough, my fight or flight mechanism was screaming otherwise. And I literally did scream a few times as I hurtled at some insane speed to a platform on the other side. After about six of these I would have happily stopped, but the only way out is across (and down) and there are fourteen lines to get through, so I had to toughen up and soldier on. The final one was 200m above the ground and 1km long and thank god I was able to do it as a tandem ride with Marty or I may have had a breakdown. With someone else I could hang on to, someone who could control the speed, I really quite enjoyed it, and by the end, I actually felt vaguely confident and may have even said that I’d do it again, but that could have been delirium and relief speaking. Some lunatics actually chose to do a 143 metre bungee jump after the zip lines, and watching a few leap off from the observation platform, I can assure you that 143m is very, very, very high. I don’t think it will surprise any of you to learn that I singlehandedly drank a bottle of wine that night as fast as a fat kid on a zip line.
When your adventure mojo falls off the horse, so to speak, the best thing to do is get right back on again and that’s literally what we did the next day. Poor Marty was a bit out of action with a funny tummy, but Ahmad and I slid into our blue jeans and went horse riding for half a day. The plan was to ride down into a valley to a waterfall, where we would have lunch, and our guide, Sandro, was a bona fide cowboy, who seldom spoke unless it was to the horses, a beautiful trio of palomino mixed with quarterback. It was a slow ride, but not exactly easy as we had to climb down some very steep and rocky paths to get to the waterfall. I’m not much of a rider, but I managed to not fall off (which was lucky because one of the rocks would likely have split my head open like a melon) and by the end of the day I actually felt like I sort of knew what I was doing and had bonded with my horse, Lucero. Ahmad’s horse was called ‘Conejo’, which means rabbit, and together they were a very manly and rugged duo.
The nature trail continued later that day with a twilight outing to a place called ‘the hidden forrest’ where we went to see the daytime animals go to sleep and the night time animals come out to play. Javier is also a nature guide, and a very knowledgeable one at that, so we spent a few hours with him pointing flashlights into bushes and tree trunks in the hope of seeing wildlife. I didn’t have particularly high hopes as these sorts of things tend to be a bit anticlimactic, but we actually saw a lot of animals – motmots (birds), raccoon and badger type critters, a sloth, a couple of porcupines (which we got really close to by sticking our head into a huge hollowed out tree trunk), click beetles which glow in the dark and a big hairy tarantula. All rather impressive considering it’s a reserve and not a zoo.
We were genuinely sad to leave El Sol, but we had one final destination – Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. When Ahmad had confirmed he was coming, I’d booked a deluxe designer treehouse where we could all kick back and enjoy a few days of laid back jungle living. After a long drive of about eight hours (there’s always a long drive) we eventually found our place, which was no mean feat as it is tucked right in the jungle, about 1km from the main road. It was a cool house (unfortunately not literally), but El Sol was a tough act to follow, so I think we were all a little underwhelmed. I mean, it did have a jacuzzi which overlooked the jungle, but it just could have been a better jacuzzi. Whilst the house itself didn’t blow our minds, the location was phenomenal. We were right in the midst of the jungle, really dense jungle with enormous tall trees and thick Tarzan vines, and we got to see (and hear!) howler monkeys from our balcony as well as toucans, butterflies and spiders. It wasn’t quite the seaside idyll I’d envisaged, especially since it poured with rain for at least a full day, and it wasn’t exactly a hop skip and a jump to the town, but we did manage a nice swim on our last day and we also ate some damn fine jerk chicken which was served from a BBQ smoker the size of a large fridge.
After some final day confusion – our transport back to the city didn’t arrive to pick us up (they’d made a mistake) so we were an hour or so behind schedule, and then our substitute driver couldn’t find the hotel we needed to get to – we eventually landed at a very pleasant backpackers that Ahmad had spotted, sitting on a rooftop bar in Alajuera (close to San Jose), reflecting on what a great trip we’ve had so far, and indeed, how much we’d managed to see and do with Ahmad in a relatively short space of time.
I’m quietly impressed with the collection of experiences Marty and I have managed to amass… seven Mayan sites, snorkeling on the world’s second largest barrier reef, swimming with nurse sharks, zip lining in the jungle, swimming through underground caves, tubing down a river in the middle of the forrest, climbing up a volcano, climbing up and down waterfalls, horse riding through steep and rocky ravines, snorkeling in ancient cenotes, climbing up so many steep things I’ve lost count, searching for critters in the night (and finding lots of them)… We’ve ridden in buses, planes, horses, tuk tuks, horse drawn buggies, bicycles and all kinds of boats. We’ve eaten grasshoppers, cactus, pork rind and we’ve met some great people along the way.
It’s time to say goodbye to Central America and head into the home stretch… Hello New York, I think I’m ready for a manicure and a vodka gimlet.